By: Aly Pickett
Zetron is honored to work with mission critical communications professionals across a wide array of applications and industries. Our daily interactions with these extraordinary individuals inspired us to launch our Day in the Life blog series. Learn more and read the full series.
For this edition of a Day in the Life, we recently had the pleasure of speaking with Bob Downie, College Instructor at Camosun College in Victoria British Columbia. Before Bob was an instructor for post-secondary students, he spent the majority of his career as a police officer in the Saanich Police Department in Saanich British Columbia. He spent half of his 37-year career in operations, and half in management roles, including five years as their Chief Constable. Part of Bob’s work included instructing officers in areas such as use of department, firearms, interviewing, and file management. Bob has led a fascinating life and his choice to continue to work after retiring from the police force piqued our interest. What was it that led him to continue working and in a formal classroom no less? In our conversation we explore the similarities and differences between instructing in law enforcement versus instructing at school and chat about Bob’s ultimate ‘why’ that has been a constant throughout his life.
College Instructor at Camosun College and retired police
Victoria, British Columbia
What was your official title when you were with the police department in Saanich?
When I retired, I was the Chief Constable. In policing in British Columbia, they use different titles for the head of the police department. But generally, in the Police Act, it’s referred to as the Chief Constable. So, in Saanich, that’s the title that we refer to. But, in some organizations, they just call it the Police Chief or the Chief of Police.
How long have you been an instructor?
I was in Saanich with the police department from 1982 until 2019. But my relationship with the Saanich police started before that when I did two years as a reserve volunteer, starting in 1979. I retired on July 31, 2019, and two weeks later, I started with Camosun College.
Prior to that, I had been instructing on a contract basis with the Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC). They had a diploma program in Law Enforcement as well as a bachelor’s program. So, I was teaching in both of those programs. Prior to that, I was also teaching with Leadership Victoria. I did six years with them on their program and curriculum development committees. They have changed names periodically throughout the years.
So, my time instructing goes back to the early days of policing, actually. This included use of force instruction, firearms instruction, major case management, file management, statement analysis, and all sorts of other background things that people have to do within the organization. This is where I got my taste for instructing. And then when I took my master’s program, I connected with Doug Hamilton from Royal Roads University, who brought me into the Leadership Victoria program circa 2005.
That was the first part of my journey that was teaching in a non-policing environment, which was really exciting and really rewarding.
Did you find a big difference between teaching in the police environment versus teaching in a more traditional format?
Yes and no. There is a difference. I wrote about this in my master’s, my thesis was around corporate knowledge, and how do we share it. And so longer story short, there’s a difference between terminology and what we’re actually doing.
In policing, we tend to provide training. And at Camosun College or other post-secondary institutions, or even somewhere like Leadership Victoria, people are there for an education. And so, it’s a matter of education versus training, two different streams. You have to treat them differently. Training is seen as something that you are giving to me. So, if I’m the recipient of training, I expect my organization to provide training. When I sign up for policing, I’m actually told, ‘Don’t worry, we will give you all the skills you need to do this job. You don’t have to worry yourself about that we will provide it for free, although they pay for basic training.’ Traditional education tends to be more self-driven, right? Self-initiated meaning something I want for me, I am seeking education, nobody’s just giving it to me. In fact, most times I’m paying for it. Unless I’m on a bursary or something.
It’s a different mindset in the classroom sometimes, but the mindset of instructing or training translates really well to the mindset of education. In instruction, you’re often coming in as a peer and part of the same work group. Although not always, I’ve done things at the international Police Chiefs’ level where I didn’t know anybody in the room. But ultimately, we are still part of the same industry. It’s still peer to peer even though you don’t have a relationship and so you show up differently. Whereas, in education, you’ll get professors or instructors, who are, ‘the keeper of the knowledge’. And essentially, for some, the mindset is ‘I shall share this knowledge with you. And you shall do what I ask and report back to me in the manner that I asked so that I can assess whether you’ve learned all the wonderful wisdom that I’ve had to share with you.’
In instruction, I tend to think of it more as facilitating the learning of others. And so, I brought that into my approach to teaching at Camosun. My philosophy is I’m not here to tell you really anything, here’s a textbook that we’re going to use but it’s up to you to go through this. It’s up to you to do some critical analysis and assess for yourself what you’re going to take away. And it’s the same thing for training, we give you skills, you choose how you’re going to adapt them and how you’re going to apply them. Education versus instruction is very much aligned that way.
To your question, the environment is completely different. The expectations are different. Between the two approaches, the idea of doing assessments when you’re training is much looser than assessments for educational purposes where you’re granting a diploma or degree as a result of what a student is able to do. There’s a lot of differences there. But a lot of integration. I’m glad I got to do the instruction first before coming into Camosun.
I imagine there was a lot of extra preparation that came from that, or you felt probably a little more prepared than just diving in.
Yeah, it was interesting. Before coming to Camosun, specifically, I talked with Royal Roads and was shadowing one of their online courses there. But prior to that my role there as an associate faculty [member], which was more working one on one with learners while they were doing their master’s program. And so that was different than being in a classroom. Leadership Victoria was the closest thing to being in the classroom I had done. And then the JIBC was different again, some of the students there almost had this reverence. Where the feeling is ‘oh, you’re a police chief, we must listen, you must know all things, and we all want to get into policing or corrections or probation etc.’ So again, you’re in a different space than the one here at Camosun and you’re trying to impart knowledge or facilitate learning with students. You want to create that opportunity and motivate students to learn. Or just provide that opportunity for them to be motivated. It’s different in a post-secondary education institution than it is in the police department or even at the JIBC where they’re in a cohort going through together.
Overall, it’s different. And I think that I brought things in here to Camosun that even the administration wasn’t expecting, as far as the approach goes. Just relying more on the practical experience, which I think benefits the learning opportunities.
What made you get into policing to begin with, and then after that, what made you eventually decide – “You know what I’m going to be an instructor?”
I was 19 years old when I applied to the Saanich police. 19 years old, when they said, ‘yes, we will take you for training.’ I was 21 when there was finally an opening for me, and I went for training. So pretty young in the scheme of things.
What drove me to policing was honestly that it looked like a fun and interesting career. You could actually do things that would help people, but also it had the excitement of the chase, and all of those things that a 19-year-old male brain would focus on. You know, after watching after school TV shows like Starsky and Hutch, etc.
During my interview though, when Chief Bob Peterson asked that question, ‘why do you want to be a police officer?’ ‘It looks fun and interesting’ was the last thing I mentioned. Young me spoke about the desire to serve and to make a difference in your community, which ended up being more true that I actually would have given myself credit for at the time. I knew these are the things that they’re expecting you to say. Then I finished up with ‘yeah, looks like a fun, interesting job. And I understand that you have a great pension plan.’ [He laughs] At 19 years old, focused on the pension, but it was enough to get me through the door.
The reality was even though I maybe felt like I was performing during the interview like you do – you put on your image armor and try to project something. When I look back on it, it ties into why I’m instructing now, this idea of making a difference.
In 2017, I hit my 35 years with the police, and I was able to collect my full pension. So, I started collecting my pension and went to contract for the last two years, timed to align with when I was leaving. I actually didn’t know what I was going to be doing at that point when the contract ended.
I hadn’t made a plan as to what retirement looked like for me or what else I could have been. In my mind, things like instructing were certainly on the table based on what I was doing with the JIBC and had done with Leadership Victoria. But I didn’t know if that’d be in a professional capacity or volunteer capacity. I didn’t know if it’d be as a consultant, I had no idea. I also considered that I could be just, you know, volunteer in the community or I could be doing something just to keep myself busy, like collecting shopping carts at Thrifty Foods. Ego was completely off the table, which is an interesting component of it.
But that aside, you look at it, and for many they identify who they are with their jobs. And when you’re at the upper ranks of an organization where you have titles that stay with you even beyond the job – legally, I still have the title of Chief Constable that’s bestowed upon me from the province of British Columbia. I’ve got a big certificate that tells me that I can use this title everywhere I go. Where do you ever see that, you know? You don’t see it on the door at Camosun ‘Bob Downie Chief Constable retired.’
For me it was a job. It was a job that I loved. It was a job that I was fully engaged in. But it was finished. On July 31, 2019, it was done. I was no longer working for the Saanich police. And so now when people ask, ‘what do you do?’ I’m an instructor at Camosun college. I don’t say, ‘well, I used to be a Police Chief but now…’ I don’t do that. Instructing is what I’m doing now, this is my role. It’s a role that I’m filling from a professional capacity, and I love it.
That was a key for me, as I knew that I really enjoyed being in front of the classroom. I enjoyed working with students, I enjoy seeing their faces when they get that ‘a-ha!’ moment. Or when they write something and it’s totally brilliant, so you think ‘you’ve got this!’ Or they challenge your thinking, and you go, you know what, I hadn’t thought of that. That’s really cool, I’m gonna build that into the next class.
So that gets exciting, just to help people along that journey. And that’s why the opportunity was one that I had to create.
I had to walk in the door cold. I knew the former Camosun President, she used to live on my street. But when she was president here, I hadn’t seen her for years. We had connected previously through when she was a superintendent of the school district, and I was in the upper ranks the police department. When I was hitting retirement, I asked her, ‘Is there any opportunities coming up at Camosun? Here’s what I’m thinking, I’ve got all these management skills, and I wouldn’t mind working with that.’ She says, ‘I don’t know if there’s opportunities or not, but here’s the name of the Dean at the School of Business, give him a call.’
So, I started out with my connection with the Dean, and he connected me with the program lead, the chair for the Management and Human Resource Leadership program at Camosun. I started as a term Instructor, doing one course the first term, and then two, then three. And then pretty soon, I was doing a full-time course load as a part-time instructor. They finally took me on full time in April of 2021.
I promise the rest of my answers will be much shorter. [He laughs]
What motivates you most either about your job or to do your job?
I can actually trace that back to my preteen days of volunteering. Joining the Cub Scouts and those types of things, but also volunteering for community service groups at 12, 13 and 14 years old without anything in return, not doing it for any ulterior motive. You’re just doing it because it feels like the right thing to do.
When I was with Leadership Victoria, we did an exercise on values. And so, as a group of facilitators, we went through the same exercise the participants did, and we had to create values for this ideal community. We were throwing all the traditional words up on the wall respect, honesty, integrity, trust. And I started asking the question of my group, why are these words important to us? Because to me, that’s where the real values come from, is understanding why these things are important. And that defines truly what is important.
So through that, I distilled it down. It was really about making a difference and doing no harm, which I later sort of fine tuned to doing minimal harm, because it’s almost impossible to do no harm.
And when I reflect back, that applies to everything that I was doing in my life, and that I plan to do my life. So that can apply to my personal or to my professional life quite easily. And that is the motivation for being here at Camosun, making a difference.
Describe a “typical” day in the life of your role as an instructor.
Oh, a typical day, they’re long! It’s funny, maybe a typical week is easier.
When you’re teaching, you have four courses and generally they try to keep it to four days of being in front of the class. When I teach in the summer, I’m down to three days in front of the class just because they’re good at scheduling. But there’s a lot of work that gets done outside of the class. I’ll spend my weekends marking assessments that have been turned in. I might be prepping for courses.
If you’re carrying four courses, you’re going to be doing a lesson plan for each week. Even if you’ve taught this time after time, you’ll revisit it. Each week, each power point deck, each lesson, you go through it before the class. And if you’ve got two classes in one day, then you spend the day before going through it.
I’ll go through those slides, look at the notes, make sure that all the resources that I want to refer to are fresh and current. Sometimes I’m switching things out, bringing in a new video. And you’re doing that like a day or two days before the class is getting ready to go. If you have two classes in a day that eats your entire day. Tuesdays are my longest days (in the summer term); I have employment law and then employee and labor relations. They’re both three-hour classes, and they’re back-to-back. So, you’re just exhausted when you’re done.
It’s really just lots of prep. Thinking about what that experience is going to be in the classroom. And that’s just to get ready for being in the class and then teaching the class but there’s a lot of other moving pieces going on.
There are other instructors who teach the same courses, and we try to take a consistent approach. The School of Business, when I started here, there was such good support from other staff that were teaching courses. They would share all of their PowerPoints, all of their lesson plans. There is always back and forth sharing of information. Just to get a relative consistency.
It’s a lot of time that goes into it and I don’t think students actually understand or appreciate the work that goes into what instructors do to make that classroom experience what it is.
And I know sometimes we don’t get it right. Sometimes the experience is like, ‘that was it? I’m paying money for this?’ Or you have this great idea for a class exercise that totally bombs. Right. I had one of those, it was an online with a negotiation. And it just went sideways really fast. I thought this works so well in the classroom, but in the online environment it bombed, so you’re re-tweaking that for the next time around.
They also try to assign other responsibilities to us as instructors. Right now, I’m the course lead for organizational behavior. I’ve just taken that on. And I was doing the course lead for the asynchronous side of the Introduction to Management. So that entails onboarding of new instructors and term instructors, making sure they have what they need in order to understand what the expectations are around the course. You answer any questions that they have while they’re early on in the process, coordinating any updates or new textbooks, reviewing new textbooks to decide if you’re wanting to adopt it. And making time for students who would like to have your help with something like writing reference letters for students applying for awards. It is just nonstop and it’s exciting. And it’s fun.
The nice part for me is I’m in a position where I have options if this becomes work. But you’ll notice in this whole description I haven’t said that. It’s been a lot of work, it’s a lot of time and energy. But it’s rewarding. So, it doesn’t feel like ‘Ah gee, I have to do this now.’ Because once it feels that way, I’ll just move on to something else where it doesn’t feel that way.
What do you enjoy the most about your role right now?
It’s the interaction with the students themselves, being able to support and facilitate learning for students, for something that’s important to them. And it might not be that the course content is particularly important to them but passing the course and understanding the content so that they can actually use it and apply it when they get into the real world. That’s the best feeling, when they actually want to know what we’re learning. They come up and ask a question like, ‘but if I’m doing this for my company, what does it look like?’ That’s exciting! Or, ‘I had this happen to me, and I really don’t understand why it happens’ so you walk through a process where some lights start coming on, and they’re finding their own path.
I do recognize a lot of students just want to get through the course. They just want to pass. But in order to do that some students need extra support. It’s not so much that they want to be a guru in organizational behavior, but they want to understand it well enough to be able to pass the course. [To circle] back, to the shorter answer [is,] making a difference.
What about policing? What would you say you enjoyed the most about policing when you were doing it?
Same kind of thing, actually. But as I alluded to earlier, it changed. Early on in the front half of my career, it was spent on the streets doing what most people think of as police work. Fun, fun stuff. Things that they’re not even allowed to do any more like car chases, surveillance, undercover work. But when I say undercover, I don’t mean like you see on TV where they’re undercover for months or years at a time. I mean being in plainclothes going out buying drugs.
There was one time we were just out on patrol, and we switched into plainclothes, we had information of somebody selling fireworks illegally out of their car. We set up a buy with them, I showed up in my 1978 Toyota Land Cruiser, because we didn’t have access to the proper unmarked cars at that time available for patrol. This kid shows up, a young adult, and opens up his trunk full of fireworks. One of the guys goes, ‘My little brother’s having a party. We want to buy these things for him.’ The seller says, ‘Yes, I got lots here to choose from what would you like.’ And I say, ‘we’ll take it all!’ His eyes light up and he says, ‘you’ll take it all?’ ‘Absolutely.’ I said, ‘but I’m not paying for them,’ as I opened my badge and wrote him a ticket.
The more serious side of the job, like working homicides, always ended being rewarding in a way too. I spent a lot of time in the Detective’s division. I worked on a pretty high-profile case in 1997, it was big news here, a girl was swarmed and killed in the Gorge Waterway. I helped deal with the families in those situations and worked with them to get them through a lengthy process after their loved one had been murdered. And it all comes back down to making a difference right at that front end.
In ’98, I moved into a role called Professional Standards, which was brand new to the department with the new police act coming in in 1997. And so, it required police departments to have a Professional Standards section, which is the equivalent of Internal Affairs. I was still on the Union Executive at that time as a director, not a table officer. And so, there’s some conflict there, you’re representing members from the union side, but you’re also investigating them internally.
That position was a job that nobody wanted. They posted it, nobody applied for it. And then I stepped up to do it only because, and largely because of the Union background that I’d had, I wanted it done right. I knew in my own mind that number one, there’s no room for corruption in policing, especially in Canada. I mean, it happens, but there’s no tolerance of that here, and it’s treated appropriately.
Most of what we would be dealing with wouldn’t be that. It’d be complaints about either excessive force, people being rude or inadequate investigations, those types of things. I wanted to make sure that the process was done fairly and objectively. And I knew that I would make sure that the members being investigated, members of the police department, would be treated fairly and objectively. But I also knew I had the capacity to make sure that people laying the complaints saw that it was a fair and objective investigation. I knew that was critical to the success of that position and how people would be treated.
So that sort of shifted things a bit, again, wanting to do things the right way. I thought that, and its ego driven a little bit, I thought I was going to do this better than others. I had this holier than thou, I can get this right attitude. I thought, I’m able to treat these people fairly, and these people fairly, and I know that others are going to sway their investigations toward the police officers. And that’s only going to erode confidence in policing. I didn’t want to have any part in that. So, I said to myself, I’ll step up for that.
In the end it all comes back to that same adage, making a difference.
Can you share one of your most inspirational, interesting or surprising stories/situations that you’ve handled on the job?
From policing, there are lots of good stories there but probably the more rewarding one that I can think of unfortunately begins in tragedy. When I was a Patrol Inspector, we had one year in, I think it was 2003, there was somewhere around 11 young people who were killed on the highways in accidents. Our officers had people literally dying in their arms from these crashes. When I say young people, they were 19 or younger.
In November of that year, my traffic section had just come back from a crash, and they were debriefing in their office, and I just stopped in to check on them. They were pretty upset of course. One of our officers says, ‘boss I don’t know why we can’t just do an ad campaign or make a commercial to tell people – it wouldn’t kill you to slow down.’ He had this slogan. I said, ‘we can’t talk about this right now, talking isn’t going to fix it. We have contacts, you guys all have contacts, let’s do something about it.’ And then the next day we had a meeting set up with ICBC (BC’s local car insurance provider) and the local news station where we pitched making a commercial around the tagline, ‘It wouldn’t kill you to slow down’ as well as ‘Talk to your kids so we don’t have to talk to you.’ We called it Conversations and the news station agreed to run a series of ads over the holiday season. One of those ads went on to win the station a broadcasting award. I get emotional thinking about it; they did such good work.
The one ad ran even past the holidays into March, and it was called, Empty Seat at the Table. It depicted the remnants of a car crash, officers milling about, and a cell phone ringing. Then it would flash to a mother on a phone, looking at her watch waiting for her child to come home for dinner. Then it shows the officer approaching the house, he takes his hat off and the mother collapses as he comforts her. There are no words spoken. It was powerful stuff. All the officers in that video were from our traffic section. The officer that went to notify the family in that commercial was the officer who originally came up with the idea in the first place.
We recognized the commercial was only going to last so long and even back then we were outcomes driven, so we asked ourselves what difference is it going to make? We felt good about the message, but the message is only going to make incremental effects. When the commercial stops the impact goes away. So, I drove our staff to come up with a workshop for parents and young people to come together to meet with first responders who had been to these crashes, meet with parents of people who had been killed, meet with people who had been driving cars that had caused the crashes. We brought these presentations and panels together and kept it under the name Conversations.
This ran for about five years until we started getting lower and lower attendance. The RCMP adopted it for a few locations further up island. One RCMP detachment took it to Alberta and ran a few there. Our organization presented to somewhere around 8,000 people during our time.
That was all from one officer saying, ‘Can we do something about this?’
If you look at it from a higher level and the role a police leader had to play in that. It would have been easy to just say ‘that’s a great idea’ and just walk away versus ‘let’s do something about this’ and push them into the funnel to start the process and allow them the opportunity to stand something up and be part of it. The same people who had been dealing with people dying in their arms were presenting at the workshops. Parents and students are coming up to them afterwards and thanking them for sharing their stories and committing to having these conversations going forward.
Who is someone that inspires you and why?
This is going to sound a bit cheesy, and I don’t mean it to, but I am always consistent in my answer to this kind of question and it’s my mother. She is 91 years old now and lives by herself still, she still drives, she does Chinese brush painting. Short story long, she kicked my dad out of the house in the 60s because he wasn’t a good person, issues with alcoholism and abuse. At that time, she had four boys, about six years apart from start to finish. It was a lot of work. Back in the 60s in Nova Scotia being a single parent wasn’t the most common thing. She worked as a secretary for the Dartmouth Ferry, but she realized she had to figure something out to support her family, so she switched jobs and became admin support for an accounting firm. They saw potential in her and supported her to get her CA, which is CPA now but, it was a CA designation back then– Chartered Accountant. This was in the early 70’s in Nova Scotia. It was a very male dominated industry and I believe she was the second female Chartered Accountant in Nova Scotia at the time.
She went from renting a house that was sinking into a swamp at one time to buying her own house. She got a mortgage and eventually worked out a transfer with her company to go out to Victoria in 1975 which is where she was from originally. All of her family was there. She bought another house here and really changed the face of everything our family did. She worked up until her late 60’s but after an injury in a car accident she couldn’t really deal with the numbers as effectively anymore, so she stopped working.
Her drive, always doing the right thing, putting us first, being able to always accomplish what she set her mind to, was all inspiring to me.
Outside of this, in my current environment, I get inspired by a few of the instructors I work with. Their drive, the enthusiasm they bring to their classrooms and to their work in general. It’s contagious. Sonia Kennedy, Alison Betton, Halinka Szwender, and several others, the professionalism they have and the commitment to their students is inspiring.
Check out more of the Day in the Life series here.