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Meet Sudbury’s Police Chief (2010)
BY VICKI GILHULA
Sudbury’s police chief did time in jail. Frank Elsner associated with criminals and partied with drug users, bikers, and hookers. He set up elaborate drug deals, disappeared for weeks on end, was involved in a hitman operation, and had multiple aliases. For all his mild-manner ways, he led a rough and ready lifestyle for many years.
When Elsner served with the Thunder Bay Police Force in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he worked undercover with the Criminal Intelligence Service Ontario. CISO is a partnership between the Ontario government and the law enforcement agencies that investigates organized crime.
A few years shy of his 50th birthday, Elsner has 28 years’ experience in law enforcement with the RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police, and the Thunder Bay and Owen Sound services. He joined the Greater Sudbury Police Service as deputy chief in January 2007. He took over from police chief Ian Davidson in 2009.
Elsner is more interested in talking about crime prevention than crime fighting. “I don’t want this story to be about me. I’d rather talk about the police service,” he tells me. But I want his story.
He was born in West Germany in 1963 and came to Canada with his parents when he was two. His father’s skills as a bricklayer were in demand in the fast-growing city of Vancouver. Later the family moved to Okanagan Valley where Elsner was a typical teen, hanging out with friends and listening to rock music by Journey, Nazareth, AC/DC and Kiss.
The son of hard-working immigrants, he was instilled with a strong work ethic and ambition. Fresh out of high school, he was recruited by the RCMP for a special training program.
In B.C., as a “special constable” in an provincial program designed to encourage and train homegrown recruits, Elsner started his undercover work.
“Because I was so young, they had me going into the high schools for the day…hanging around the schoolyard,” (looking for drug dealers.)
But at the time opportunities for Elsner with the RCMP were limited. There were cutbacks in the mid-1980s. What jobs there were went to officers who were bilingual, had a university degree, or were members of unrepresented groups such as women and First Nations.
“In those days I was 0 for 4. (So) I wrote to every single police department from Victoria all the way to Newfoundland.”
He got a call from the OPP. Elsner was assigned to Nipigon in northwestern Ontario. A year later, at the age of 23, he joined the Thunder Bay force.
“I wanted to live in a city. I had friends on the Thunder Bay force, and it seemed like more exciting police work.”
In 1988 he was transferred to the Thunder Bay drug unit. He started doing undercover work at a mall where drugs were a problem. He’d hang out and keep an eye on the dealers.
Eventually, he was assigned to CISO undercover operations throughout the province. One operation, involving an organized crime family and lasting over a year, resulted in a $1-million drug bust and 75 arrests. Elsner can’t give too many details about his assignments. Sometimes they were very dangerous and his life was at risk.
“I got beat up pretty good on one occasion, no scars but some broken ribs, hand, and a concussion,” he remembers.
In order to establish his “street cred” in the criminal world, he lived behind bars off and on over a nine-month period. His longest stay was for about month. Only the warden knew he was on the right side of the law. He survived by reading books, working out and talking (and listening) to the other guys.
“There is no training for the jail part of it. You just live your life like anybody else. But I had a different mind set. I knew I was getting out. I knew I was not in trouble. I was doing it for the right reason. It was the first time in my career I really felt I was doing something important. I was happy to do it. I was proud to do it,” he says.
The secret to success as an undercover officer is keep it as real as possible and to not to try to be something you’re not, says Elsner. But he did have the right look: long hair, a beard, a leather jacket, ear piercings and a tattoo. (He got the tattoo while he was in jail.)
A master diver in real life, he set up a phony diving salvage business as a cover for his phony drug operation. It was accepted part of his modus operandi that he didn’t do drugs. It was “just business” for him because “users mess up and get caught.”
The life of an undercover officer is exciting, “an adventure,” Elsner calls it. But it is also perilous and stressful, at times lonely, and hard on personal relationships. Over a two-year period, he was only home nine days. He kept his time in jail from his parents.
In 1991 he asked to be transferred. “I knew it was time to leave. My language was getting worse and I was partying all the time…The transition was difficult in that now my daily activities were structured. But it was nice…I felt secure.”
It wasn’t as easy for one of Elsner’s colleagues who worked undercover for more than a decade. He developed some mental problems and started drinking. He committed suicide after returning to regular police work.
Elsner doesn’t think that could happen today because he says police departments have learned how to deal with the issues undercover officers, and all police officers face.
“We look after the mental welfare of our people…but in those days, nobody knew…We see the best (of people) but too often we see the worst…we used to be told to ‘just suck it up’.”
Elsner got on with his workaday life. He transferred to the detective unit with the Lakehead service. Before coming to Sudbury, he was the deputy chief in Owen Sound.
He married a fellow police officer, Susan, who is now a teacher. She encouraged him to get a bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in law from Lakehead University and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Western Ontario. The couple have two children, Haley, 17, and Katie, 9.
The chief has a spacious corner office on the fifth floor of the police building on Brady St. It gives him a bird’s-eye view of downtown Sudbury and beyond.
As the interview winds down, he says, “I wanted to be a police officer since I was 18.”
Elsner is done talking about the past and wants to talk about the future. He has a particular interest in community policing initiatives as well as working with young people and prevention programs such as PAVIS (Provincial Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy) and the chief’s youth advisory committee.
“I am a big believer that education works better than enforcement.”
These days Elsner is hanging out with community leaders, educators and business folks, a better crowd than in his undercover days. He is a member of the Cambrian College board of directors, and he has volunteered with a number of agencies and at fundraising events. He even modelled a pair of high heel shoes to create awareness of domestic violence.
“One must be a dynamic person to be in a community for such a short time and already have an influential impact,” says Anna Maria Barsanti.
The retired high school principal works with the police department on the PAVIS program that educates young people about gangs and gang-related activities.
Barsanti likes Elsner’s down-to-earth approach. “He appears to be genuine, committed, knowledgeable, sensible, people-centred, inclusive.
“When I first began working here, there was a (designated) police chief parking spot in a prime spot. It is no longer there. That spot is designated for police car parking.”
Elsner gave her the responsibility to develop a literacy plan for young people with a $10,000 budget and then left her alone to do her job.
“When I debriefed him, his comment was, ‘Do you know what you want to do Anna? Then design the project and give me a summary. We hired you for your expertise’.”
Elsner took part in a literacy event at Chapters, and “when I wanted to get a shot with him in the picture, his comment was, ‘It’s about the kids, I don’t need to be in the photo’,” says Barsanti.
You might not recognize the unassuming police chief if you run into him in the mall or the Canadian Tire. He looks like an average guy—something that helped him “fit in” on undercover assignments. Frank Elsner prefers to stay in the background and get the job done.
UPDATE: Greater Sudbury Police Chief Frank Elsner will receive the Order of Merit of the Police Forces June 8 in Ottawa. The award is issued by the Governor General’s office. According to the Governor General’s website, 44 new appointments to the Order of Merit of the Police Forces will be awarded this year.