Police Icon Turns 90 – Chief Stephen defies the odds
Today is a special day.
It’s the day former Winnipeg Police Chief Herb Stephen celebrates his 90th birthday.
Born on November 19, 1933 in the City of Winnipeg, Chief Stephen has seen, done and accomplished much in his life.
“It’s amazing to still be around this long, it’s not something you would ever think would happen. I’ve outlived my siblings by many, many, many years,” he recently said.
It’s even more remarkable when you consider the fact studies show the average police officer dies within 5 years of retirement and has a life expectancy of 12 years less than that of the average person.
Herb Stephen retired in 1992, some 31 years ago.
So how do you explain that kind of improbable longevity?
The secret might be found in the way the Chief handles stress.
“Stress never bothered me,” he said, “I always thrived on it.”
He continued, “Even after the bank shooting, I went home that night and slept like a baby. The shooting was on a Friday night, and I came back to work the next day at eight o’clock in the morning.”
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” the Chief said.
Then, with the clarity of a twenty-year-old, he told the story…
“It was January 22nd, 1971, at the TD bank at 274 Smith St.”
“There were two of us in there, no bullet proof vests, I was just carrying my five-shot snub-nose, Ivan had the department shotgun, and we had a portable radio. We had good information that an armed bank robbery was going to happen.”
“We were down in the basement, the arrangements were that the staff were to hit the floor if anything happened, and uh, I was to come up the front stair and Ivan up the back stair.”
“At 5:40 p.m., the call went out to Sherbrooke & Portage to the bank there saying two masked men had just gone in and everyone rushed there. Ivan and I both thought that call had to be ruse to draw police away from our bank.”
Their instincts would prove to be exceptional.
“We heard the noise upstairs almost immediately.”
“Ivan went up the back way and I went up the front way. One guy was inside the back door, both wearing balaclavas, armed and the other guy had already jumped the counter and was at the cash drawer. I yelled out, “Hold it police”, they both wheeled and the guy by the door opened fire at Ivan and the shot went right in the door frame.”
“Ivan was just coming through that door. I fired two shots, one at the guy behind the cashier and he went down, the second shot went right through the glass into the back door right where the guy was standing. The only thing that stopped him from getting hit was he lurched because Ivan had just shot him in the groin with a slug from the shot gun.”
“The guy lurched otherwise he would’ve been hit,” the Chief lamented.
“Then I leapt over the counter, and I triggered the alarm and phoned 911, sorry it was 999 at that time (chuckles) . Both of those calls were at 5:43 and the initial thing at Sherbrooke & Portage was 5:40 – so within those three minutes everything happened, it was all over.”
“Three minutes that I will never forget.”
“There’s not a day goes by that I still don’t think about it.”
In the aftermath, one suspect was dead and the other seriously injured.
On April 29th, 1971, the surviving suspect, James David Carter, appeared in court and plead guilty to armed robbery, possess a restricted firearm and endangering life. The charge of attempt murder of a police officer was stayed. Carter was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
When asked about how he felt about the plea bargain, the Chief said, “We weren’t very happy about it, and we were even less happy afterwards, he got good time in jail, but when he got out the City of Winnipeg hired him as a transit driver.”
“It still makes me shake my head.”
The conversation circled back to the beginning.
“I wore it for years, I started on January 30th, 1956, my first night on the beat I wore the buffalo coat,” he said.
“You started on the street, the first night, no training, an empty holster, a whistle, and no radio. They put you out with another police officer for just three nights, then you were on your own.
The police officer I was with was Bernie Koley and he started just two weeks before me, and he was supposed to be my training officer. I walked the beat for six months before they sent me to the Academy in the summer.”
“So, you were out there, untrained, working by yourself with a whistle, and a key to run to the call box wherever the hell it was.
You had your notebook and on your first day on your beat you had to go around and find all the fire alarm boxes and the call boxes, so you could find them in case of an emergency.”
“When I did go to class, they only gave us half a day of instruction, then they made us walk the beat for the other half of the day. You wouldn’t get a shot at working a patrol car for a least one year. Not even for relief, and they were one officer cars back then.”
After retiring from the Winnipeg Police Service in 1992, the Chief took some time off to contemplate his next pursuit.
He often speaks of how difficult it was to find qualified applicants to enter the ranks of the Service when he was Chief of Police. The WPS would often receive two thousand or more applicants for every hiring initiative and were challenged to find twenty-five (25) acceptable candidates.
The concept for the Northwest Law Enforcement Academy (NWLEA) was born out of that concern. It would be a post-secondary institution where applicants interested in a career in law enforcement could attend to receive instruction in a variety of foundational courses that would enhance their qualifications.
Courses like police defensive tactics, police report writing, criminal law studies, forensics, situational analysis, criminology, and many others.
The student body would be diverse in every sense of the word.
In those early days, the Chief and his co-founders met over the course of a year, holding court at a back table at the Pancake House on Pembina Highway. They strategized for over a year.
Those strategy sessions resulted in the Academy being launched in 2001.
“It’s amazing, we’ve had over 850 people who graduated from here and I’ve seen the list lately and there’s a lot of them in law enforcement. I’m so proud every day I walk down that hallway and see that Wall of Fame.” *
“That’s very impressive to me,” he said with a satisfied grin on his face.
In his typical humble style, the Chief assigns much of the credit for the success of the organization to his co-founders. He also highlights the impact of his exceptional training staff.
“Jim Bell came here right from the Winnipeg Police Training Academy where he was the commander. He was excellent in his role here, and he stayed 15 or more years.”
Academy instructors are all retired police officers with a tremendous amount of experience and a strong desire to pass that knowledge onto the next generation. The instructional staff have over 350 years of collective law enforcement experience with various police agencies.
“Our instructors are what makes our school special.”
“I never imagined we’d still be here 22 years later.”
When asked if he would do it all over again the Chief expressed a degree of trepidation.
He shared concerns regarding anti-police groups who promote hatred and disrespect for law enforcement officers.
“Sometimes it amazes me to see the number of people who apply to our school who are still interested in a career in law enforcement despite all of the negativity out there.”
“To me, law enforcement will always be a tremendously honourable profession, and we will always need good people to serve and protect our communities.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Happy birthday Chief.
Written by James G. Jewell – Sergeant – Winnipeg Police Service – Retired
*Wall of Fame – the wall at the Academy displays the photographs of Academy graduates in their uniforms after graduating from their respective law enforcement agencies academies – the wall features graduates from the Winnipeg Police Service, RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police, Nishnawbe Aski Police Service, Federal & Provincial Corrections, Manitoba Sheriffs and many other law enforcement agencies.