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Review

Policing the Fringe: The Curious Life of a Small-Town Mountie

By Charles Scheideman

November 4, 2013

Review By Ben Bradley

Every province and state seems to have spawned its own popular literature about those who enforce the law and those who run afoul of it. British Columbia is no exception, but most popular histories of policing in this province have focused on infamous and unusual cases from before the 1940s. The postwar years and the voices of actual police officers are usually absent from these accounts, and, as a result, readers learn little about the daily routines and institutional culture of modern policing. This is why retired RCMP officer Charles Scheideman’s Policing the Fringe is so valuable: though intended for a popular audience, it provides a rare insider’s view of police work “at the street and road level” (9) in communities like Nelson, Cranbrook, Williams Lake, Lytton, Golden, and Quesnel from the early 1960s to the late 1980s. 

The book is divided into fifty vignettes, each involving a particular person, place, incident, or theme. Most are drawn from Scheideman’s own experiences, but a few are borrowed from unnamed colleagues. They represent the highlights (or lowlights, as it were) of a career in an occupation in which dealing with unusual occurrences is relatively commonplace – the kind of “big fish” stories retired police officers might share among themselves. 

Readers are introduced to an assortment of anonymous drifters, down-and-outs, ne’er-do-wells, and otherwise troubled or unlucky characters, including hermits, glue sniffers, wife beaters, motorcycle gangs, drug smugglers, bank robbers, and killers. The vignettes are presented in no discernable order, with animal attacks, runaway trucks, and suicides intermingled among landslides, people reported missing, and bodies reported found. Irresponsible driving and overindulgence in drink (sometimes in conjunction) emerge as the most common problems encountered by police, while the radio-equipped patrol car and microcomputer are shown allowing an unprecedented degree of communication between officers and agencies. Particularly striking is the central role that paved, all-season roads played in policing British Columbia’s hinterlands. The in-between space of the highway network provides the setting for many of the incidents Scheideman describes, bringing a steady metronome of accidents, reckless driving reports, and speed enforcement, while allowing emergency services to reach most incidents within a fairly short time. Roads also facilitated criminal activities and mobility: Scheideman describes how, when the Canadian Police Information Computer system was introduced in the early 1970s, his detachment commander told him: “there is no need to ever feel idle or bored as long as that highway is over there; go out and check a few cars and you will have some excitement before you know it” (286). 

Most of the other vignettes are set on the outskirts of the Interior’s burgeoning regional centres and in isolated, sometimes highly insular, communities whose residents were unfriendly towards the metropolitan authority represented by the RCMP – small single-industry towns, First Nations reserves, and depressed backwaters that had gained little from the modernization of the Interior economy and that Scheideman avoids identifying by name, as though they were victims. In a sense, the “fringe” of the book’s title is an internal frontier, the boundary between “haves” and “have-nots” in the increasingly uneven social geography of late Fordism and post-Fordism in British Columbia, which was characterized by the centralization of both industry and government services. Indeed, the juxtaposition of centre and margin runs throughout the book. The “freedom of the road” contrasts with the belligerent localism of places “off the beaten path.” Sightseeing tourists, adventuring hitchhikers, and outdoor recreationalists who choose to live outside for fun contrast with people who have no option but to live in flophouse hotels, decrepit shacks, or in their cars. 

Scheideman has an engrossing, matter-of-fact writing style, and he avoids getting either bogged down in the intricacies of police procedure or carried away with trying to capture the tension or excitement of a situation. He generally avoids discussing the political implications of policing, but he offers some anecdotal insights into its office politics, plus a few pointed comments on the rise of police bureaucracies as well as on the courts, where artful presentation and technical sophistry often struck him as counting for more than evidence or public safety. Policing the Fringe belongs on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the history of policing and crime in British Columbia, particularly for its portrayal of the period before marijuana cultivation and its associated money-laundering became major drivers of the province’s hinterland economies.

Policing the Fringe: The Curious Life of a Small-Town Mountie
By Charles Scheideman
Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing 2009.  320 pp. $24.95