With four strokes of a pen,
Ontario police officer Ron Heinemann set in motion
the disbandment of an elite crime-fighting unit. NMA nominee: Investigative Repoting
· Illustration by Josh Cochran
It was 4:35 a.m. on January 12, 2004, four below zero, with blowing snow and treacherous roads, when the twelve members of the Ontario Provincial Police’s Barrie Tactical and Rescue Unit (tru) set off in two unmarked Suburbans, two gun trucks, a bomb truck, and an unmarked van. It took six hours to get from Barrie to the Chippewa of the Thames reserve, thirty kilometres southwest of London. When not spelling off the driver, Ron Heinemann positioned himself over the axle in the bomb truck’s windowless cube van, cleaned his weapons, put on his hostage rescue kit, and prepared charges for explosive forced entries.
With the truck’s non-existent suspension, twice when it hit bumps, Heinemann’s handiwork threatened to obliterate his crew. Heinemann wasn’t new to the game. He’d been on the Barrie tru for almost a decade, was acting head of bomb tech for the province, and, as the most senior constable on the Barrie team, sometimes led training and field ops.
When they arrived on the scene, tru members would go immediately to the front line, but, as in all such deployments, a senior officer known as the Incident Commander (IC), holed up in a command centre away from the action, would call the shots. Particularly since the Ipperwash Provincial Park occupation in 1995, when native protester Dudley George was shot and killed by Heinemann’s teammate Ken Deane, ICs had become increasingly gun-shy, ignoring crucial tru Standard Operating Procedures (sops) that senior command thought too provocative for reserves.
The opp does not generally have jurisdiction on First Nations land and must usually be invited to an incident by a chief or band council. But the Barrie tru had been receiving more calls than usual in recent months, and one thing was clear: they were not welcome there.
Heinemann had been thinking about his recent sergeant’s exam and the course textbook, Harvard Business Review on Culture and Change. While most police forces followed the more prosaic program set out by the Ontario Police College near Aylmer, the opp fancied itself a cut above and conceived its own exam. Half of the 100 multiple-choice questions were based on Culture and Change’s eight chapters, one of which had caught Heinemann’s attention.
“The Nut Island Effect: When Good Teams Go Wrong” is about a team of some eighty people who operated the Nut Island sewage treatment plant in Quincy, Massachusetts, from the late 1960s until the plant was decommissioned in 1997. Like a tru, the Nut Island team was dedicated, innovative, and self-governing. They had esprit de corps, watched each other’s backs, and even dug into their own pockets for spare parts and other necessities. There was one problem: their dedication and self-sufficiency set the stage for catastrophic failure. During a six-month period in 1982, this competent and experienced staff released 3.4 billion tonnes of raw sewage into Boston Harbor.
The study describes the psychopathology that afflicts organizations when communication between managers and the managed breaks down. As the chapter describes, in most cases, the Nut Island Effect “features a similar set of antagonists—a dedicated, cohesive team and distracted senior managers—whose conflict follows a predictable behavioral pattern.” The team develops an outsider mentality, both heroic and isolated. Eventually, communications become so strained that the workers feel taken for granted, and both sides lose focus on the job at hand. Senior management turns a blind eye to operational dysfunction until catastrophe hits. At that point someone becomes the fall guy and all bets are off.
This resonated with Heinemann because it seemed to map his and other officers’ experience with the opp since Ipperwash: eight years later, the force was definitely in the throes of the Nut Island Effect.
The opp formed its first tru team in 1975 in the wake of the Los Angeles Police Department’s creation of Special Weapons and Tactics units. The first swat team emerged in the late 1960s following the Watts Riots and the emergence of heavily armed domestic groups, notably the Black Panthers, which taught the lapd that the standard snub-nosed .38-calibre pistol in the hand of an average cop just didn’t cut it in the face of home-grown terrorism. By 2004, virtually every decent-sized police force in North America had a tactical team.
Today, the opp has three tru teams with twelve members apiece. Based in Orillia, London, and Odessa (near Kingston), each costs upwards of $5 million to form and, with additional equipment, maintenance, and training, millions more every year to maintain. As with other swat teams, the tru mandate includes dealing with barricaded subjects, hostage crises, high-risk warrants, dog tracking, witness protection, court security, and prisoner escorts. Gaining membership is a tough slog. Heinemann and his fellow candidates underwent a two-week selection process that required them to be in tip-top shape and included sleep deprivation and psychological testing. Those who made the grade then went through a five-week training course on the principles of site containment followed by another five-week course on clearing and a three-week course on how to advance on a site. Specialists did additional training—bomb technicians for another nine weeks, rappel masters four, and snipers three. Only a fraction of those who applied made the cut, but once on board they became part of an elite fighting force accorded considerable respect among the rank and file. Heinemann had always been proud he had “the right stuff.”