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Specialty police on duty: 'We are open to any involvement'

Karen Best
Dunville Chronicle
Local News - Wednesday, July 12, 2006 @ 05:00

[SISIS note: The following mainstream news article is provided for reference only, as an example of how mainstream media treats indigenous resistance to genocide. Mainstream media often presents biased and distorted information, lacking pertinent facts and/or context. Inclusion of this article on our site should not be considered an endorsement by SISIS.]

Blake Cohoe and John Browning practice new methods of policing with passion and compassion.

If you get a chance to speak to them, you'll soon learn about their determination to strike up relationships amid turmoil, their dedication to respect and negotiations and their confidence in the possibility of healing in Caledonia and Six Nations.

Working on the cutting edge of the latest in policing, Cohoe is one of the three OPP Aboriginal Response Team (ART) members assigned to network with Six Nations individuals and Browning is one of three OPP Major Event Liaison Team (MELT) members addressing Caledonia resident concerns.

Picture these men standing back to back facing their respective clients, for lack of a better word. They move forward to work within the communities, quietly and steadily building a momentum toward peace, as much as possible, but they do not work in isolation. While given latitude on how the job gets done, these men and their teams mesh. Browning illustrated this by intertwining fingers from both his hands.

In an exclusive interview with The Chronicle, Cohoe and Browning explained how they carry out their duties. The ART and MELT teams were created to improve OPP policing in the wake of the Ipperwash crisis.

On March 1, Cohoe, who is a member of the Huron First Nation, was dispatched with other ART members to Caledonia. The day before some Six Nations citizens moved into the Douglas Creek Estates subdivision. They remain on land they say is theirs and was never to be sold.

In 1784, Sir Frederick Haldimand, who was governor general of Quebec and Ontario, granted 950,000 acres along the Grand River to the Mohawk people and others of the Six Nations to replace lands lost in the American War of Independence. In the deed document, Haldimand wrote that the land was theirs for posterity.

In the 1840s, the government wanted to construct a road from Hamilton to Port Dover on the deeded land. Six Nations say the land was leased and not sold.

Understanding the history and culture of Six Nations gives Cohoe insight into their beliefs and reasoning related to this land reclamation. From the first day on duty in Caledonia, ART members began building respectful relationships that assist OPP in addressing the safety and security of all people involved, he said. This crucial groundwork paid off when tensions escalated.

On May 22, Six Nations protesters removed their Argyle Street South barricade but Caledonia residents and others remained on the street. When Six Nations members walked into the crowd to help a woman stranded in a car involved in an accident, Caledonia residents refused to let them pass. Violence erupted with blows exchanged by individuals on both sides.

After Six Nations members hauled a hydro tower down the street and set it up as a new barricade, Cohoe was there.

"I was standing with the land claimers for sometime to talk and deescalate the situation," he said. Looking back he was certain he made a difference because no one suffered serious injuries that day.

While Cohoe is reluctant to confirm it, he worked around the clock into Tuesday when the hydro tower was pulled off the street.

"There was definitely a commitment to a peaceful resolution," said Cohoe. One of his roles was to help facilitate the removal of the barricade. "We (Six Nations and OPP) jointly had come to help each other in positive progress," he said. "Relationships were built through a lot of hard work on everyone's part to accomplish an obvious decrease in tension."

Barricade removal was also a collaborative effort by the OPP as a whole, noted Cohoe, who does not go onto the site. He meets Six Nations individuals where he can.

The OPP's 44 ART members build relationships between police services, aboriginal peoples and communities. Each officer is trained in negotiations, and in history and culture of First Nations. Cohoe joined the team because he has a sincere desire to help OPP and native communities.

ART was born out of the Aboriginal Strategy Committee in the OPP's Western Region, which includes Ipperwash. ART and MELT members work together under the Framework for Police Preparedness for Aboriginal Critical Incidents. The framework promotes a flexible approach to resolving conflict and crises, OPP Commissioner Gwen Boniface stated during June Ipperwash Inquiry testimony. People with specialties can identify issues, look for peaceful resolutions and develop strategies to use minimum force, she continued.

In March 2006, the First Nations Chiefs of Ontario asked for changes in the critical incident definitions. OPP amended it to include high risk on a First Nation territory or to a First Nation person where there is potential for violence requiring an integrated response from OPP. Sources of conflict arising from aboriginal treaty rights are now deemed critical incidents.

After joining the OPP in 2002, Cohoe worked as a regular officer in the Essex County detachment for a year and then joined the committee. Once ART was established in 2004, he became a member.

"I think there is a definite need for the existence and future enhancement of ART," said Cohoe. "OPP has recognized there's a linkage between understanding issues related to the goals and aspirations of the aboriginal community and building healthy relationships to properly respond to incidents involving aboriginal people."

In April 2005, he was one of the ART officers called to a grade school in the Walpole Island reserve. Someone had scrawled a death threat on school property. No incidents were reported while Cohoe and other members spent four weeks liaising with children, parents and school authorities.

For Cohoe, the Caledonia situation is the largest scale and most publicized event that he has worked. "OPP on a general scale has done an excellent job because of the length of the occupation and no serious injuries have occurred," he said.

When asked if two sets of law were in place, Cohoe stated, "Police is always a neutral party and the primary focus and goal of OPP is everyone's safety and security. There are never two sets of laws or two sets of races or 15 sets of races."

Cohoe also defended his colleagues, who have been criticized by some Caledonia and Ontario residents. "They've done an excellent job," he emphasized. "My hat's off to all the OPP members that have been here."

Created at the same time, the Aboriginal Response Team and the Major Event Liaison Team work together. In Caledonia, one supervisor oversees the two teams.

Browning, who joined OPP in 1994, is a member of the Middlesex County detachment where he trained to work as a crisis negotiator. Many times he played a role in convincing a suicidal person to surrender to police. He offered an empathetic view of their plights. They try something out of character to get attention, he stated.

When MELT was established, candidates were selected out of the crisis negotiator pool. Browning applied because he had an interest in the team's mission. He is one of 12 members who can be deployed to a variety of incidents including hostage taking, barricade cases and execution of high risk warrants.

Near the beginning of the Six Nations incident, Browning was a uniform presence on site security. He said monitoring the subdivision in a cruiser was an important duty because information is relayed to supervisors.

On June 26, Browning was assigned fulltime to the Caledonia incident as a MELT member. In concept, the team is reactive, he explained. Town residents already have developed relationships with police services board members and community officers. MELT came in to open lines of communication with any person impacted by the incident.

Like Cohoe, Browning works in civilian clothing but always informs people that he is an officer. Both can make arrests. Transparency is essential in building trust as he reaches out to hear resident concerns. When appropriate, information is passed on to supervisors. MELT and ART members are also a conduit to other resources including counseling services offered by Haldimand Norfolk REACH.

The two teams co-train on aboriginal history, crisis negotiation and alternate dispute resolution. "There are no specific tasks that we need to accomplish. We are open to any involvement," said Cohoe.

In working with town residents, problems can be solved, Browning pointed out. Through dialogue, solutions can be uncovered and steps can be taken toward resolution, he added.

In the first week of July, Browning just started outreach efforts to Caledonia Citizens Alliance members, the executive director of the Caledonia Regional Chamber of Commerce and some business owners.

MELT waited to move into the neighbourhood closest to the occupied subdivision until Canada Day had passed. They also waited for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to complete its survey of residents' needs for assistance. Last week Browning said the team is waiting for the ideal time to meet people living on Braemar Avenue, Thistlemoor Drive and MacCrae Drive.

Over the summer, Browning, who will be on duty during any critical events in the area, hoped to forge relationships. He expected the team to hold open meetings and to meet privately with individuals.

Like other officers, he is aware that many Caledonia residents are disappointed with police action. Browning hoped perceptions would change after people learn that the OPP's approach is the best practice for this situation.

Racism will fade after dialogue leads to broader understanding and appreciation of both sides, he continued. He was aware that this might be a difficult goal to attain and he was ready to bear the brunt of residents' frustrations. Part of the healing is to get feelings out and then people can look at longer term, lasting solutions, he said. His team will use communication to reduce fear and anxiety in the community.

Cohoe also understood the racism. "The dispute is just frustration," he summed up. "Our commitment is to help any person in the community to see if we can stop those frustration levels and to assist people in any way."

Both ART and MELT members liaise with the two communities during and after the event. It will take time for both to heal, noted Browning. Healing will start when people see a resolution coming. At that time, the specialty teams will brainstorm with residents to select the best ideas to assist the communities in healing and coming together, he continued.

Meanwhile, Cohoe encouraged people to stop any officer to ask for an ART or MELT member. In fact, he wanted citizens to approach officers more often.

Police are now readily accessible at the Caledonia police station on Argyle Street South. Located beside the Haldimand County office, the police substation is staffed from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. The office phone number is 905-765-2339.

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