Even after five decades in law enforcement, Elgin Austen can still be surprised.
Recently, the director of Western’s Campus Community Police Service received an email from out of the blue. Coming less than two months before his retirement, the email was a flashback to someone Austen had run-ins with 40 years ago, when he was a young officer with London Police Service.
The email read:
“… I don’t know if you remember me, you might, but I remember you. I have unfortunately spent a great deal of my life in conflict with the law. When I was a child I wanted to be a police officer but I was told Indians can’t be cops. I saw you on TV the other day and wanted to let you know that you are the best cop that I have ever come in contact with. You chased me when I was seven years old for breaking windows … lol. When I was nine years old I got taken into custody as I was a runaway from a foster home and you spoke to me really good and treated me like an uncle or a dad and tried to tell me right. I have never forgot it. You treated me good and treated me like someone who cared. Back in those days that was rare. Seeing you over the years in the media, it is good to see there are good people like you that continue to do good work.
p.s. Can you still run that fast?? LOL!!“
“It is great to hear that you had such an impact on someone’s life like that,” Austen said. “It goes to show all it takes is one person to make a difference.”
He is quick to deflect this praise as ‘just doing my job,’ but for the Bothwell, Ont.-born Austen – whose childhood home can still be found on, of all things, Austen Line (named after the family) – police work has been in his blood for more than half a century.
In 1997, Austen retired after 38 years as a member of the London Police Service. He had started a security investigation company in the early 1990s, and expected that to wean him out of policing and into full retirement. The company is still going strong today.
“I never really considered retiring. I started my business thinking I would retire sometime in the 1990s. But it’s just carried on,” he said.
In 2003, Western asked Austen to conduct an assessment of the campus police and offer any recommendations, if needed. Following the assessment, the university asked if he could provide a bridge to a full-time director.
“They had gone out trying to hire someone and that didn’t work out too well, so they asked me if I could stay for a month and work on a few of the recommendations I made,” he said. “I thought ‘Western’s a great place and this might be interesting.’ So I came for a month. And then they asked me if I could stay a couple more months because things were going good.”
When Christmas 2003 arrived, Austen was still there.
“So they said ‘Look, would you just like to stay?’ So that’s what happened,” he said. “What it was is that I realized this was a fantastic place and, because I was retired – or supposedly retired – I could do whatever I decided to do, so I chose to stay.”
Austen credits the university’s leadership at the time with giving him the go-ahead to act on quite a number of his recommendations.
“We have followed that course of action right from the beginning and we’re still there.”
The university’s annual Emergency Exercise Training sessions, along with being the first and only Canadian university or college to receive accreditation by the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, are just some of the changes Austen has made at Western.
But what he is most proud of is the launch of the Safe Community initiative in 2008. Consistently recognized as one of the safest campuses in Canada, Austen took steps to further entrench a culture of safety across the university by focusing not only on physical and emotional safety, but on environmental and cyber-protection as well.
And to him, the key was self-ownership.
“Campus police is a relatively small unit, but we have a very large responsibility toward the university. The most effective way we can carry out those responsibilities is to have community support,” Austen said. “There are many people who want to support their own safety and security, but don’t really understand how that can be done. So, if you give them a few tools and engage the whole community, they take ownership.
“With the community engagement, it makes for a much safer community because you are getting everyone who has a stake working together.”
As Western grew, so did the responsibilities. What was initially just campus police soon grew to include foot patrol, fire safety and emergency management responsibility. Austen is also keen to share a job most folks probably aren’t aware of – Western’s card access system.
“It is the largest single card access system in Canada,” said Austen, with 93 buildings on campus covered through card access. The Social Science Centre is just coming online now with full card access and there are 10,000 users alone for that building, he added.
“And we do all that work right here,” Austen said.
When he retires at the end of April, Austen plans to jump on his motorcycle and head on down the road. An avid rider since his teenage years, Austen was even chief instructor for the Canada Safety Council Motorcycle Training Program at Fanshawe College for 25 years. In the last five years, he has ridden to California twice, motored up to Alaska and revved his engines out east to Newfoundland and Labrador.
“I just need more time for that sort of stuff,” said Austen, who’ll be hitting the open road to Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail this summer, followed by a possible trek south toward Alabama and Mississippi.
But don’t be surprised to hear that motorcycle roar on to campus every now and then.
“It’s been a marvellous place to work,” Austen said. “It’s a great institution and the people we have here now are doing a real bang up job.”
WHAT THEY ARE SAYING
“Whether it was one of the many emergency response exercises he orchestrated, safe campus community programs he initiated or real-life crises he helped to manage, we always felt better knowing Elgin was there to help lead us through safely and effectively. He has been a tremendous asset to our campus and I wish him all the very best for a happy retirement.”
Amit Chakma, Western president
“Elgin has brought so much positive change to Western, and has most definitely made it a safer campus. There has also been no bigger champion of Western Foot Patrol. He promotes the program and our volunteers every chance he gets and genuinely appreciates the time they give and what they do. When you have a leader who really believes in your work and always supports you, well, it really means a lot.”
Samantha Johnstone, Western Foot Patrol unit manager
“I have known Elgin for over 33 years and he was one of my first patrol staff sergeants. He was, and remains, the consummate professional thoroughly dedicated to promoting public safety. On the street he was a tough copper with a no nonsense, law and order work ethic. He was well known to the criminal element and quite frankly, feared among those involved in illegal activities. Elgin should take great pride in his accomplishments both with the London Police Service and at Western. I wish him all the very best and knowing Elgin, he will continue to ‘do something’ as he has never been one to watch the world pass him by.”
Brad Duncan, London Police Service chief
“I’ve known Elgin since he was a detective at the London Police Service and I was a reporter at The London Free Press. He had a reputation among journalists as being no-nonsense. So, when I heard he was coming to Western as director of Campus Police, I wondered how well he’d adapt to the university culture. I soon learned that he didn’t just adapt, he has thrived, and that’s a credit to him as a person. That tough detective I knew so long ago is also a natural leader who is discerning and compassionate.”
Helen Connell, Western Communications and Public Affairs associate vice-president
“Elgin has fostered the Campus Community Police Service, which has become a leader among partners in campus safety. Elgin’s leadership has established Western as a place where students can learn and develop lifelong experiences in a safe environment. SERT has always valued our friendship with Elgin and the expertise and advice he has offered in improving our team’s operations.”
Dan Buchanan, Student Emergency Response Team executive director