AN INTERVIEW with The Chief
As the City of Hamilton ushers in Eric Girt as the new police chief, Spectator columnist Susan Clairmont sits down with him to discuss everything from workplace morale to budgets to discipline
HE ERIC. INVITES ME TO CALL HIM Or chief. “I’m fine with either,” he says modestly. That seemingly small gesture from Hamilton’s newest chief of police says a great deal about Eric Girt.
FIRST, HE IS HUMBLE. Though he is leading one of the province’s largest police services with 1,150 people under his command, he is unchanged by the elevated role he was hired for in May. He is still soft-spoken. Still friendly. Still able to make a joke at his own expense.
The invitation also signals something else. For 30 years, other police in the city have known him as Eric.
He is one of them. A Hamilton boy who came up through the ranks, patrolling these streets, earning his way up.
Veteran officers say they are thrilled Girt, 54, has taken the helm, but calling him chief will take some getting used to.
Those who have worked with him for years describe Girt as “a gentleman” who is smart, caring and thoughtful. Lloyd Ferguson, chair of the police board that chose Girt for chief, has called him “shy.”
Girt succeeds Glenn De Caire, who came to Hamilton from the Toronto Police Service in 2009. His outsider status was one of the biggest hurdles he had to overcome during his time here. It could be argued he never got over it.
“Policing is a front-row seat to the human condition” “We are, in fact, delivering more with less”
THE SEARCH for his replacement was restricted to internal candidates. The Hamilton Police Service’s two deputies — Girt and Ken Weatherill — were the only applicants. Though both are accomplished and respected leaders, police board chair Lloyd Ferguson has said it was Girt’s decade as deputy that gave him an advantage over Weatherill, who became deputy in October 2014.
Girt lost out on the top job once before, to De Caire.
“I am certainly pleased,” the city’s 35th chief says, settling in, perhaps a bit nervously, for a 45-minute interview, squeezed in between other appointments. “It was a long process.”
He celebrated his promotion by going to dinner with his family. Girt met his wife, Tracy, while studying at McMaster University.
He has a combined B.A. Honours in English and anthropology — subjects, he says, that are “a study of the human condition.” Later, he graduated from the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. and the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management Police Leadership Program. He went to Barton and Southmount high schools. His love of learning continues. Girt is well read and quick to provide book titles he thinks might be of interest. He quotes experts he has heard speak at conferences.
Girt and his wife have two sons and a daughter.
Girt’s father, Donald, was a firefighter. As a young man, Girt was a Royal Hamilton Light Infantry reservist. Being a first responder seemed like a good fit.
“Policing is about dealing with people and problem solving,” says Girt. “That appealed to me, along with the desire to help — I know that sounds corny.”
“Policing is a front-row seat to the human condition.”
Here are Girt’s thoughts on other issues:
LAST YEAR’S budget was $149.1 million, 90 per cent of which was salaries and benefits. (The chief earns about $288,000.)
At a time when statistics show many crimes in the city are on a decline, some wonder why HPS is always asking for money to hire more front line officers.
“We’re certainly aware of the fiscal pressures. I understand it’s a largely residential tax base. We know the industrial component, manufacturing component, funding that tax base has changed.”
Hamilton is a “lean” service to begin with when you look at its “cop-to-pop” ratio of 151 officers per 100,000 population. The provincial average is 187 per 100,000. The Canadian average is 191 per 100,000.
“We are, in fact, delivering more with less,” says Girt.
Crime stats don’t reflect the work being done to prevent crime, he says, citing the highly successful Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Team (MCRRT). Apprehending someone under the Mental Health Act and getting them to hospital doesn’t show up in crime statistics.
“We’re looking at interventions that are less intrusive, more preventative and don’t end up in criminal charges. That’s the goal.”
He says the same preventive approach is also used in domestic violence, child abuse and youth crime.
The chief says his service always looks for efficiencies and the potential “civilianization” of work currently being done by sworn officers. In Hamilton, court security and bylaw enforcement are done by civilians, unlike in other jurisdictions.
A SURVEY conducted by the Hamilton Police Association in October 2015 found 72.6 per cent of sworn officers were dissatisfied with workplace morale. And 83 per cent of sworn officers surveyed said they were working in a “culture of fear.”
“For me, morale is complex,” says Girt. “We’re in a difficult job. We deal with problems and problem solving in difficult circumstances.”
He says the service is paying attention to the mental health of its people more than ever. He cites the “courageous conversation” about officer suicide that began under De Caire’s watch and says HPS continues to “build a more robust system” around prevention and caring for those who have been involved with critical incidents on the job.
“We’re building an awareness in the service.”
New legislation introduced in February recognizing PTSD as a workrelated illness will improve care available to HPS employees.
The new forensic building
THE SERVICE wants to build a new standalone forensic building for $15.6 million plus another $8.9 million associated with the “soft costs” of design and equipment.
HPS has bought land on the core block bordered by Wilson, Rebecca, Catharine and Mary streets.
The old forensic unit, located within police headquarters on King William Street, is small and out of date. It was built 40 years ago, before DNA evidence became a routine part of investigations. The outdated facility creates a real risk of cross-contamination of evidence.
“We know the best practice is three labs: one for the suspect, one for the accused, one for the scene. We don’t have those facilities.”
The proposed facility would also bring all of the Investigative Services Division — including the homicide, child abuse and sexual assault units — under one roof. Girt says a decade ago HPS already needed 50,000 square feet of additional space.
Some of the money HPS has set aside for the facility comes from PanAm provincial funding earmarked for policing the soccer games held in Hamilton last summer.
Chief Glenn De Caire ordered at the time that none of his officers could take time off during the games.
“We couldn’t meet the operational needs using on-duty staff,” Girt says. HPS billed the province for the additional staff who worked the games at their regular pay rate while other jurisdictions considered it “special duty” and charged Ontario time and a half.
“So our original proposal was $1.2 million higher,” he says. That savings has now been set aside for the capital financing of the forensic building.
In total, the service has $8.6 million in capital reserves available for the project.
So far, HPS has not been able to secure provincial funding for the building.
A suggestion that HPS simply build a fourth floor onto its existing headquarters is not viable, says Girt.
“It’s more costly to retrofit,” he says. And the flow of work in the city’s busiest police station would be interrupted.
HPS HAS INVESTED many resources into its highly successful Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Team, which pairs five specially trained uniformed officers with mental health professionals to deal with an average of 19 emergency calls per day involving people with mental health issues.
Before the MCRRT, when officers responded to calls involving someone with mental health issues, they were apprehended and taken to hospital 70 per cent of the time. That number has dropped to between 14 and 18 per cent with implementation of the MCRRT.
“We want to talk first,” says Girt. “Use of force is the last option. And certainly lethal force is the very last option.”
MCRRT advantages include: less stigmatization of the clients and ability to get them to care sooner; less impact on the hospitals, cost and time savings for the front line.
THE DEMOGRAPHICS of HPS — and all police services — are changing as baby boomers prepare for retirement.
Ensuring the service passes on its knowledge and skills from experienced officers to rookies is a top priority.
Girt uses Staff Sgt. Matt Kavanagh — manager of the Tim Bosma homicide case — as an example. Kavanagh “has taken it upon himself to mentor young detectives.”
IT IS CRITICAL for HPS to be transparent and accountable, says Girt, particularly where discipline is concerned.
“We don’t shy away from it. We don’t avoid it. It’s very public. It’s very open. We will continue to do that.”
Discipline for police can come in the form of Police Services Act charges or criminal charges.
The criminal court handles the most egregious cases. However, the PSA charges require a different standard of consideration.
Girt, a trained PSA hearing officer, says the impact on the community must be considered.
“But we must also be looking at the member involved, not just what the offence is,” he says.
His response seems to contrast with the approach taken by his predecessor, De Caire, who earned the dubious nickname “Don’t care” because of his heavy-handed approach to discipline.
Hell in the Harbour
CHIEF GIRT is doing it. On Aug. 6, he’ll climb and crawl through a gruelling endurance mud course at Bayfront Park for the second annual run benefitting the Special Olympics.
Girt has run the Around the Bay race and a few marathons in the past, though he says he’s more apt to do yoga these days.
Still, he’s up for the challenge.
The city’s new police chief, Eric Girt, is a Hamiltonian who climbed the ranks over a 30-year career to take hold of the reins as the new top cop.
In this 2006 photo, Hamilton Police Chief Eric Girt is seen with his family from when he was named deputy chief. He is pictured with his wife and three children. Left to right: wife Tracy Girt, Adam, then 16, Andrea, then 14 and Ben, then age 6.
Hamilton’s new police chief, Eric Girt, talks with Spectator columnist Susan Clairmont on the compelling issues facing the force today. Top left: Girt as a new recruit at age 24. Top right: the chief gets a kiss from his mother Margaret following the May ceremony where he received his new badge.