VERNON - As a kid growing up in B.C.’s rugged Elk Valley, one of Shawna Baher’s favourite pastimes was bringing home injured or orphaned animals.
“I would rescue gophers from the gopher traps. I would bring home dogs and cats and at one point I had two goats. My parents were fairly liberal with the animals I could bring home,” she says with a laugh.
Sitting in her upstairs office at the Vernon RCMP detachment, Supt. Baher is a long way from the farm where her dad, who worked at the local mine, and her mom, a retired school teacher, raised her. Her career has taken her undercover, into courtrooms and across the country — but that little girl saving gophers on the family farm is still very much a part of who Vernon’s top cop is: someone with a will to help others.
In her first couple months at the helm of the Vernon-North Okanagan RCMP detachment, Baher has made some strong first impressions. It didn’t take long for the superintendent to hit the streets of Vernon alongside harm reduction coordinators and medical health officers to talk about the city’s challenges with homelessness, mental health and addiction. Crime fits in there too, but it's not always straightforward, Baher says.
“People see homelessness and it can make them upset,” Baher says. “Granted, there are some people who are street-entrenched and involved in crime, but the simple fact that someone is homeless is not a crime.”
When criminality is involved, Baher doesn’t believe in simply handcuffing the perpetrators and throwing them in jail. She’s working with Interior Health on a major pilot project that would see individuals being held in custody given the opportunity to start an Opioid Agonist Program — one of the first steps in treatment for opioid-related addictions — before they are released from cells. She’s also working on an initiative to provide individuals with naloxone kits upon their release from custody.
READ MORE: North Okanagan pilot project brings methadone, suboxone into RCMP cells
“Some people say I’m a bleeding heart,” Baher says. “I don’t see it like that. If we can help put people on a path to treatment, why wouldn’t we do that?”
As a former Surrey cop and drug investigator, Baher had a front row seat to the rise of B.C.’s current opioid overdose crisis.
“We could see where it was going before everyone else,” she says.
She believes police can help with the opioid crisis, but not on their own.
“The first thing I’ve done is get myself familiar with all the different service groups and… educate myself about what is available. For me, it’s about working with different community providers, not in silos, but together. Sitting down and saying ‘what can we do?’” Baher says. “Vernon has a lot of really strong community groups doing the right things. We’re lucky this is already in place. I’m just getting to tag along.”
By helping people with their addictions, Baher says the wider community will benefit from a reduction in drug-related crimes.
But that doesn’t mean Baher takes a soft approach to crime. Notably, the Vernon RCMP busted three suspected drug houses since Baher took up the position, all in the span of just over a month. That type of crackdown hasn’t occurred in years in Vernon — at least not publicly. The message it sent was loud and clear: those involved in the illicit drug trade will feel the heat.
Baher’s experience disrupting drug operations goes deep. She’s spent many days and weeks under cover, sometimes posing as a drug user or dealer, working to infiltrate criminal organizations and operations. The longest she was ever on such an assignment was two months.
Through her work on various drug investigations, Baher, who studied criminology in university prior to joining the RCMP, became particularly interested in fentanyl and its associated analogues. That led to her to becoming a much requested expert witness at criminal trials and coroners inquests.
“I take courses. I read. I talk to other community groups and I talk to addicts,” she says. “I find I have the ability to help people take a topic they don’t know a lot about and break it down to something simple.”
Sharing information seems central to Baher’s philosophy. Not only does she meet community agencies behind the scenes, she also makes a point of disseminating information to the public.
“When I came here, I said I would make no changes for 30 days. And then I made a change on the first day,” Baher says.
That change was getting on Facebook.
“I think this community and the surrounding communities rely heavily on Facebook, and we should be on it,” she says.
That page contains links to public warnings, calls for witnesses and the token personal belongings that police are trying to reunite with their owners. It also features candid videos, photos of officers out in the community, and pictures of Mounties — including Baher — sitting down with locals during ‘Coffee with a Cop’ days. Baher has visited local coffee shops in all the region’s main communities, from Armstrong to Coldstream, Vernon, Falkland, Lumby and Enderby, and that’s not something superintendents are expected or known to do.
“It’s about getting to know the community,” Baher says of the coffee days. “People see Vernon as a hub and it is, but it’s not the only detachment. I police them all and each one (has) its needs that I need to make sure are being addressed.”
Typically, Baher is joined by cops from that detachment area to simply sit, listen and chat with locals about what’s on their minds. And people are taking the opportunity to speak up.
“In the rural areas, the biggest issue is call response times (which) we’re looking at improving. In Vernon, I look at homelessness and addiction issues as paramount for me to address,” she says. “It’s helping me introduce myself to the community and understand what’s important to them.”
That sense of community service, she says, is something her mentors embodied when she was a kid.
“Growing up in a small town, the police played a really big role in the community. I was enamoured by that big role. In my teenage years I had the opportunity to speak to a lot of the members and got to see what the RCMP meant to them,” she says.
What does the RCMP mean to Baher today? Camaraderie, challenge, and community are all top of mind. But the biggest thing?
“You’re out there, believe it or not, to make things better for people,” she says.
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