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Life on Nut Island

With four strokes of a pen on a Chippewa reserve, Ontario police officer Ron Heinemann set in motion the disbandment of an elite crime-fighting unit. Was he a villain, or the scapegoat for a corrupted police culture?

by Stephen Williams

Illustration by Josh Cochran

The Walrus Magazine May 2007 issue

Published in the May 2007 issue

It was 4:35 a.m. on January 12, 2004, four below zero, with blowing snow and treacherous roads, when the twelve members of the Ontario Provincial Police’s Barrie Tactical and Rescue Unit (tru) set off in two unmarked Suburbans, two gun trucks, a bomb truck, and an unmarked van. It took six hours to get from Barrie to the Chippewa of the Thames reserve, thirty kilometres southwest of London. When not spelling off the driver, Ron Heinemann positioned himself over the axle in the bomb truck’s windowless cube van, cleaned his weapons, put on his hostage rescue kit, and prepared charges for explosive forced entries.

With the truck’s non-existent suspension, twice when it hit bumps, Heinemann’s handiwork threatened to obliterate his crew. Heinemann wasn’t new to the game. He’d been on the Barrie tru for almost a decade, was acting head of bomb tech for the province, and, as the most senior constable on the Barrie team, sometimes led training and field ops.

When they arrived on the scene, tru members would go immediately to the front line, but, as in all such deployments, a senior officer known as the Incident Commander (IC), holed up in a command centre away from the action, would call the shots. Particularly since the Ipperwash Provincial Park occupation in 1995, when native protester Dudley George was shot and killed by Heinemann’s teammate Ken Deane, ICs had become increasingly gun-shy, ignoring crucial tru Standard Operating Procedures (sops) that senior command thought too provocative for reserves.

The opp does not generally have jurisdiction on First Nations land and must usually be invited to an incident by a chief or band council. But the Barrie tru had been receiving more calls than usual in recent months, and one thing was clear: they were not welcome there.

Heinemann had been thinking about his recent sergeant’s exam and the course textbook, Harvard Business Review on Culture and Change. While most police forces followed the more prosaic program set out by the Ontario Police College near Aylmer, the opp fancied itself a cut above and conceived its own exam. Half of the 100 multiple-choice questions were based on Culture and Change’s eight chapters, one of which had caught Heinemann’s attention.

“The Nut Island Effect: When Good Teams Go Wrong” is about a team of some eighty people who operated the Nut Island sewage treatment plant in Quincy, Massachusetts, from the late 1960s until the plant was decommissioned in 1997. Like a tru, the Nut Island team was dedicated, innovative, and self-governing. They had esprit de corps, watched each other’s backs, and even dug into their own pockets for spare parts and other necessities. There was one problem: their dedication and self- sufficiency set the stage for catastrophic failure. During a six-month period in 1982, this competent and experienced staff released 3.4 billion tonnes of raw sewage into Boston Harbor.

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