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

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - Su­san Clair­mont’s com­men­tary ap­pears reg­u­larly in The Spec­ta­tor. sclair­mont@thes­pec.com 905-526-3539 | @su­san­clair­mont

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:

Po­lice bud­get

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.

Work­place morale

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.

Men­tal health

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.

Re­tire­ments

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.”

Dis­ci­pline

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.

HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR FILE PHOTO

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.

JOHN REN­NI­SON, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

CATHIE COWARD, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

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.

PHOTO COUR­TESY ERIC GIRT

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