Report recommends batons, pepper spray for B.C. natural resource officers

A recently released report written by violence prevention consultant Joel Johnston says the officers are not properly equipped for the risks they commonly face.

Forestry Ministry says its officers are trained to defuse high-risk situations

Natural resource officers frequently face high-risk situations in remote locations, according to a recently released report. (B.C. Compliance and Enforcement Branch)

British Columbia's natural resource officers should be armed with batons and pepper spray to defend themselves against the intoxicated, confrontational people they sometimes face on the job, according to a recently released report. 

Natural resource officers enforce provincial rules related to the environment. Their jobs include managing wildfire risks at campsites and on private property, investigating unauthorized use of Crown land and educating the public.  

Joel Johnston, a violence prevention consultant, wrote the March 2018 report for the Forestry Ministry's Compliance and Enforcement Branch. It was released last week as part of a Freedom of Information request.

The report says the officers are not properly equipped for the risks they commonly face, which include groups of drunk campers, mentally unstable people living on Crown land and people with weapons like knives, axes and firearms.

"Parallel problems have existed across similar agencies in the past with tragic results that could have been averted," Johnston said in the report.

The report says natural resource officers sometimes have to deal with large groups of intoxicated campers. (Shutterstock)

The risks are compounded by interactions usually taking place in remote areas where officers have limited access to information or backup law enforcement, Johnston wrote.

But the B.C. Forestry Ministry says its natural resource officers are trained to defuse conflict situations and use self-defence tactics. 

The Ministry also notes that "there has never been an incident that has resulted in someone being charged for assaulting a Natural Resource Officer."

Trained to disengage

Despite the hazards natural resource officers face, the report says, they're only equipped with soft body armour.

Johnston acknowledges that the officers are trained to disengage from potentially risky situations, but he warns that may not always be possible because of the unpredictability of human behaviour. 

"The inability to safely disengage from a situation is a foreseeable risk for which existing risk mitigation policy will never be the answer," he said.  

Illegal camping on Crown land is one of the types of issues that B.C.'s natural resource officers deal with, according to the report. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Johnston recommends equipping the B.C.'s natural resource officers with expandable batons and pepper spray, to be used for self-defence — equipment he says would "enhance their safety, public safety, and the safety of their colleagues and co-workers."

He says the equipment would be in line with other similar law enforcement agencies across the country. 

Tragic examples

In his report, Johnston cites examples from across Canada of law enforcement officers who were killed or injured, like Rod Lanzenby, an Alberta community peace officer who was fatally beaten over a dog-related bylaw infraction in 2012. 

"Canadian case law now exists requiring employers to act on foreseeable risk with solutions that are realistic and as comprehensive as possible," he said.

But the ministry says natural resource officers don't have the power of arrest, and Johnston's examples don't include law enforcement agencies with that same restriction.

The ministry says it's currently conducting its own review.

However, Johnston points out that natural resource officers' uniforms and equipment mean they're perceived as law enforcement, and interacted with as such.

Past recommendations

It's not the first time consultants have recommended batons and pepper spray for B.C.'s natural resource officers.

Johnston says the company, DTI Defensive Tactics, trained officers to use the equipment more than five years ago. 

And in 2013, he says, occupational safety specialists issued an independent Violence in the Workplace Risk Assessment Report that issued similar recommendations.

But Johnston says since then, the province made the "somewhat perplexing decision" not to issue the equipment.

The ministry says it's reviewing its approach to how the officers deal with the public, which would change the circumstances under which the 2018 report was based. 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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