Abbotsford Police Const. Ian MacDonald was just a couple of weeks into his new role as the department’s public information officer (PIO) in May 2009 when he walked into the office to start his shift and learned there had been a double murder overnight.
Two teen boys, Dilshir Gill and Joseph Randay – both Grade 12 students at W. J. Mouat Secondary – had been shot after having been abducted from a park at gunpoint as their friends watched in horror.
News reporters had begun gathering on the sidewalk across the street from the high school, and it was MacDonald’s role to fill them in on the investigation so far.
He arrived at the location, stepped before the TV cameras and provided some details. Then, it was time for questions.
MacDonald spotted a veteran Vancouver newspaper crime reporter in the crowd.
“I’m not taking the first question from her,” he thought.
He kept looking and came across a TV reporter who was smiling at him. MacDonald decided to start with her.
“Don’t you think if the Abbotsford Police had done a better job investigating the abduction of these two young men, they might be alive right now?” the reporter asked.
To this day, MacDonald doesn’t recall how he responded, but he is grateful for one thing.
“Fortunately it was one of those waist-up (camera) shots, so you didn’t see my knees crash together,” he says.
MacDonald went on to spend the next eight years as the face of the Abbotsford Police Department (APD) in times of both trauma and cheer.
His tenure ended in December – the new PIO is Sgt. Judy Bird – and he is now working in patrol, mainly doing desk work as he continues to physically recover from the effects of having been T-boned in a car in 2011 and then struck three times as a pedestrian – in one instance being thrown 21 feet.
But he says his days as PIO have been the best of his 20-year policing career.
He went into the field after an eight-year stint as the director of employee and public relations for a large restaurant and food service company.
One of their accounts was with the Vancouver Police Department and, through his contact with them, he was often asked whether he had ever thought about policing.
His restaurant career came to an end in 1998, and MacDonald, then 31, decided that was precisely what he wanted to do.
“I was coming out of a profession where I was making lots of money, but I didn’t feel like I was earning it … I didn’t feel like I was actually contributing anything to society or to humankind.”
MacDonald was hired by the APD in April 1998, completed his training, and then worked in patrol, followed by a period as a trainer for a new records management system known as PRIME.
Then-PIO Sgt. Casey Vinet began pestering MacDonald to apply for the PIO position when Vinet’s stint neared its end, but MacDonald initially had no interest – that is, until he was told that Chief Bob Rich wanted him to do it.
MacDonald has great respect for his boss, and that’s all he needed to hear. But he wasn’t sure he was the right person for the job.
“I candidly said, ‘Listen, I have no training. I tend to talk. Public speaking isn’t an issue, but public shutting up is an issue for me,’ ” he said.
MacDonald had some training from Vinet, but said he mainly wanted to “wing it” and find his own approach – and that was to connect with people, even through the most challenging of circumstances, whether it was the double stabbing at Abbotsford Senior Secondary that resulted in the death of 13-year-old Letisha Reimer in 2016 or the horrendous line-of-duty death of one of APD’s own, Const. John Davidson, last November.
He said he always tried to keep in mind one thing.
“You’re either going to try to convey, ‘Look, this is a bad thing but we’ve got it’ or ‘We don’t know what the hell is happening; run for your lives.’ … I always approach things form the standpoint of, ‘Of course, we’re going to deal with it. That’s what we’re here for and that’s what we do.’ ”
The job also had its light moments, and MacDonald laughs when he recalls stories such as the woman who was trapped in her house by a goat or the young men who went through a car wash in a shopping cart.
He said he most enjoyed the APD’s unique approach to public awareness and education. This included videos that addressed issues such as distracted driving and the 2012 Christmas card in which Rich dressed up as Santa wearing tactical gear and carrying an assault rifle in an attempt to encourage gangsters and other criminals to turn their lives around.
MacDonald said that although he no longer has to constantly monitor police activities and be prepared to speak on camera at a moment’s notice, he does miss being PIO.
“For me, this was the coolest job,” he said.