Keeping the campus secure

October 21, 2004, vol. 31, no. 4
By Roberta Staley

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Nearly four decades ago, 19-year-old Bernie Cherak, fresh from Regina's famous RCMP training academy, started policing duties in Rosetown in southwestern Saskatchewan.

The farming community of 3,000 mainly Czechoslovakian descendants was an excellent place to practice new investigative skills and develop the diplomacy needed for dealing with people in crisis. It was a gentle breaking in.

“People would report even minor thefts to police, who actually did something about it,” recalls Cherak, SFU's coordinator of patrol operations for campus security. “It was a real hands-on environment.”

Cherak quickly rose in the ranks, becoming a crime scene investigator and forensics instructor at his RCMP alma mater. In 1983, he was transferred to Burnaby. The past 10 years of policing hadn't prepared Cherak for the West Coast city's high crime rate - especially serious crime. “It was a shock,” Cherak admits.

Cherak quickly became adept at juggling the daily barrage of emergency calls. Once again, he became a crime scene examiner in the Burnaby detachment's forensic section before being promoted to sergeant in charge of the Burnaby forensic identification section.

Murder investigations were evolving rapidly at the time, moving beyond traditional crime-scene deduction and fingerprint detection to high-tech DNA analysis of microscopic fiber, hair and tissue samples.

Cherak's investigations overlapped some of the forensic innovation being carried out at SFU. He attended autopsies conducted by professor Gail Anderson, SFU's world-renowned pioneer of forensic entomology and creator of a flesh-eating insect database for use in murder probes. And he occasionally lectured at forensic undergraduate courses.

Cherak's next career step seemed a natural progression. Leaving after 29 years service with the Red Serge, Cherak joined SFU campus security in 1997. He has, it seems, come full circle.

The job, he says, recalls his days in tiny Rosetown. “There are break-and-enters, thefts, missing person and sometimes harassment investigations - generally what you would have in a small-town police force,” says Cherak, who supervises five patrol officers and monitors investigations.

Cherak has also helped control protesters, as in 2002 when nearly 50 students demanded attendance at a SFU board of governors' meeting to oppose tuition fee hikes.

Criminal matters, of course, are handed over to the police, Cherak adds. (He keeps his gumshoe skills honed as a part-time private investigator, especially in the area of fingerprint evidence analysis, for clients such as lawyers.)

Cherak is also involved with the campus disaster management planning. Campus security, adds Cherak, is as diverse as being a street cop. “People are people,” he says, “and they get into trouble. It keeps it interesting.”

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