When Thierry Hinse-Fillion arrived at a skatepark on the outskirts of Montreal for his first day in his new position, he was greeted with stares. Some – taking note of his uniform and patrol car – wondered if he was there to arrest someone. Others watched as the 32-year-old police officer opened the boot of his car and pulled out a skateboard.
“There was just this silence,” said Hinse-Fillion. “It was incredible. Then I got on my skateboard and nobody could understand what was going on.”
He quietly made his way to a corner of the skatepark and began launching into a few tricks. Slowly the stares subsided and the park returned to its normal rhythm – albeit one that now included Canada’s first skateboarding cop.
The position with the police department of Longueil, a city near Montreal in Quebec, officially launched in mid-June. But it had been years in the making, thanks to Hinse-Fillion, a three-year veteran of the police force who had long dreamed of combining policing with his love of skateboarding.
He knew it was an unusual matchup. Hinse-Fillion had grown up skating outside churches and shopping centres – and getting into run-ins with police. Skateboarders often saw police as nothing more than authority figures who hand out tickets, he said. “So I said to myself, I’m going to use my passion – my sport – to try and chip away at that barrier.”
After joining the police, he spent two years of his free time mapping out exactly how his project could work, putting together a formal proposal for the department. “Lots of people have asked me, why put a police officer in a skateboard?” he said. “I know that it’s quite unique, but at its essence it’s also quite simple. You use sport to get closer to the community and all the benefits come from that.”
Hinse-Fillion already had one trailblazer in North America to cite to his superiors: in 2014, a cop in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Joel Zwicky, had begun patrolling on skateboard. Described as the world’s first skateboarding cop, Zwicky has said his aim is to break down what he called the “cop versus skateboarder mentality.”
The Longueuil police department eventually accepted Hinse-Fillion’s proposal, but a few concerns lingered. Worried about injuries, they approved a slimmed down uniform – which still includes a gun tucked into a holster on his left hip – to ensure he could carry out his duties but not be weighed down while skateboarding. Hinse-Fillion waved aside concerns about accidentally discharging the gun, pointing to the safety catch. “I could hit it with a hammer and nothing would happen,” he said.
During a typical shift, Hinse-Fillion tours through the city’s eight skateparks, chatting with anyone he finds there, from young children to 55-year-olds. For some, the project has transformed the way they see the city’s skateparks. A handful of retired people have begun dropping by when he’s there, while parents of some of the younger visitors to the park have spoken out about being reassured by his presence at the park. On a Sunday evening spent with the Guardian at one skatepark, two young kids stood next to Hinse-Fillion, conspicuously hanging on to his every word.
But most of the time, those at the skateparks don’t pay much attention to him. “It’s a bit weird to have a cop here,” said 17-year-old Maxime Goyette. “My friends took some photos of him the first day he was here. But it hasn’t changed anything here.” Simon Ratté-Berubée,15, added, “People come here to skate, it doesn’t really matter if it’s a cop or not.”
The reception has been more positive than Hinse-Fillion had expected. “I thought I would hear from people who didn’t want anything to do with the police, but I haven’t. Because if they don’t want to be around me, they leave as soon as I arrive,” he said.
His colleagues have also embraced the new position – teasingly referring to him as ‘the star’ over the many media interviews he’s done in recent months – but also passing along the names of troubled youth to keep an eye out for while he’s at the parks. Often he shares with these youth his own story of dropping out of school at age 15 and later turning his life around. “I don’t have to ask, tell me about your life, I just invite them to skate with me. That gives them the impression that the police are something different than what they’ve known.”
So far, the project is just a pilot, scheduled to end this month. Afterwards Hinse-Fillion will sit down with his superiors to evaluate whether the position should become a permanent fixture of the Longueuil police department.
For Hinse-Fillion, there’s little doubt that the past few months have proved the unlikely combination of skateboarding and policing to be a success. “When I get on my skateboard and I do some tricks that they can’t do or that would impress them, then I’ve created a bond with them,” he said. “You can see the uniform fall. They don’t see the police officer any more, they just see a guy on a skateboard.”