Sgt. Sheryl Armstrong was 19 in 1981 when she followed in her father’s footsteps and joined the RCMP.
In the 1980s, police were starting to get paid well, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted and influencing policing, and women were forming a larger presence on the force.
Armstrong has seen a lot of changes in her 35 years with the RCMP that she says has been one of the best and most interesting periods to be an RCMP member.
“I started out in the Mission detachment and there were a lot of issues there with female members, you know, a lot of the guys didn’t accept us yet at that time, so it was a learning curve for me,” Armstrong said.
In spite of early challenges, Armstrong built a career she’s proud to look back on.
“I’ve had a really great career. It’s allowed me to see the province. I’ve had supportive bosses, I’ve had bad bosses, but that’s in any organization,” she said.
Armstrong spent 16 years working sexual assault, homicide and child abuse cases. She headed a sex crimes unit in North Vancouver, worked in an integrated First Nations intelligence unit on fisheries and smuggling, worked in economic crime, was the Squamish Detachment operations non-commissioned officer for a time and was even in charge of special projects for the Lower Mainland Integrated Homicide Investigative Team.
She became head of community policing in Nanaimo in 2011.
Armstrong singles out her work with First Nations as a highlight of her career. She helped create the RCMP First Nations Unit in North Vancouver, one of the first of its kind in Canada, with the West Vancouver Police Department, to work with the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations who at the time didn’t trust or welcome police.
“We built relationships back,” said Armstrong who went on to say working with First Nations taught her patience, to listen and give other people the opportunity to talk.
One of the toughest parts of policing for people to understand is police have to enforce the laws of the country regardless of their personal beliefs, she said.
She recalls growing up listening to her father, Howard “Hap” Armstrong who became RCMP assistant commissioner of Ontario.
“I was in northern Saskatchewan, Green Lake, and a lot of my little friends were getting grabbed to go to schools and my dad would talk about the Indian agents coming and how difficult it was for them, as policemen, to have to watch these kids be taken away from their parents,” she said.
Laws and times change, but not the effect prolonged exposure some crimes can have on mental health. In 1995, a superior helped Armstrong get treatment for the compounding mental trauma from years of dealing with child abuse cases. She said the RCMP has taken strides to ensure its members’ mental and emotional health.
She has also seen how advancing technology, ranging from social media to weaponry, is changing police work.
“When it came to use of force options I had my voice and my gun. That was it,” she said.
Today there are tasers, bean bags, batons and a range of other non-lethal weapons.
“It’s different and challenging times for policemen. Technology’s made it easier, but it’s also made it harder. I think that’s going to be a huge issue that policing’s going to face. What are we going to allow technology to do? It’s really interesting to see how technology has changed the way we police.”
Tuesday (Jan. 3) is Armstrong’s last official day on the job.