Former Caledon OPP Staff Sgt. Brian Knowler remembers looking over the email he was about to send to his coworkers in the Caledon detachment.
“I remember, just before hitting send, thinking, ‘Do I really want to do this?’” he recalled. “Once it’s out there, it’s out there.”
The email described Knowler’s battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“If I expect that officers come to me and confide in me,” he said, “I thought, ‘I need to show them that somebody in a leadership position is not afraid to share that as well.’”
That was more than a year ago.
And after two years behind the desk at the Caledon OPP detachment, Knowler is leaving the area to get back in the cruiser closer to his hometown of Windsor with the Chatham-Kent detachment.
But, if he left the local detachment with anything, he hopes it’s that officers know they don’t have to struggle alone.
“It doesn’t have to be a secret,” said the six foot five officer whose smile can soften his imposing height.
Knowler’s PTSD stems from an incident involving one of his close friends, he said. He was the first to arrive on the scene.
“I tucked it away for a long time,” he said from his empty office at the Caledon East detachment at the beginning of January on his last day in Caledon. “Until it all came crashing down on me.”
He let it take over, he said, affecting those closest to him.
“I didn’t want to see that happen to anyone else in this detachment,” he said.
After the Ontario Ombudsman released a report last November that found that an OPP officer is statistically more likely to commit suicide than die in the line of duty, Knowler decided to send the email and open up about his diagnosis.
A lot of officers in the local detachment knew Cindy Mackenzie, a Caledon OPP officer who committed suicide in 2010, and her struggles with mental illness, said Knowler. He doesn’t want officers, like her, to feel like they have to keep it a secret.
“It doesn’t have to be something that you tackle on your own,” he said, noting that he received nothing but support since sending the email.
After almost two years “to the day” that he made the move from the East Algoma detachment in Northern Ontario to Caledon as a Staff Sgt., Knowler reflected on his time in the town.
“If I’ve left an acknowledgement that [mental health] is something that still needs to be worked on, but that it doesn’t have to be career ending or that it doesn’t make you less of a police officer,” he said. “Then I would be very happy and content with leaving that as a legacy.” But it works both ways, he said. The support he got from the Caledon detachment after clicking send helped keep a time, that could have been much darker, filled with some light.
“During these two years, when so much came out that I started dealing with, I had the people here as some of my strongest supporters,” he said.
“I had my family, family on one side of me and my police family on the other.”
On Knowler’s last day in his office, the Transformer figurines and toys removed, name plate gone, the shelves were bare – the only things left were the coloured pushpins, arranged in a circle on the corkboard, a new edition of the Criminal Code, among other books, and an old miniature blue OPP flag.
While two years is a fraction of the 15 years Knowler has been with the OPP, a lot can happen – especially in a place as diverse as Caledon.
Between a suspect who fled into a sewer grate, to escaped horses running down Mayfield Road, dumped bodies and loud motorcycle noises in Belfountain, the farm and urban dichotomy in Caledon kept him busy.
“In a 15 minute car ride you basically go from rural right into the heart of … big city policing,” he said. “One minute somebody would be complaining about tractors or farm machinery by their house making too much noise, and five minutes later, my officers are going to Peel region for a gun call or a pursuit that came into our area.”
Knowler also made and saw a lot of changes with the detachment – from the transition to a brand new building and the Shop with a Cop program he instituted, to the changes in the detachment’s paperwork and data management systems.
Attracted by the diversity, but attached to the people, the move isn’t going to be an easy one, he admits.
“I count Caledon among the best time I’ve spent as a police officer,” he said. “If I could transplant Caledon to southwestern Ontario, I would.” But, after being promoted to Staff Sgt. after only eight years on the job – a promotion that typically takes 15 to 20 years – he realized family duties call him closer to his hometown.
“I chased that pretty hard,” said Knowler, one of the few OPP officers who graduated law school and was called to the Bar. “And now, my boys are at an age where I’m looking back and going, ‘You know what, I missed out on a lot of stuff because I was all about chasing that brass ring.”
With two boys at home, who are on the cusp of 10 and 13 years old, he knew it was time for a change, he said. And everything just seemed to come together.
But, it’s a change he’s looking forward to.
“You become a police officer for certain reasons and sometimes it’s easy to lose track of those reasons when you’re sitting behind a desk,” he said. “So I’m excited about getting back out and remembering those reasons again.”