I had the opportunity to speak recently with two former Toronto police officers. Both conversations were unique, candid and surprising. Due to the candid nature of the conversations and concerns about publicly announcing viewpoints that may bring repercussions to both former Toronto police officers, I have chosen to keep their identities anonymous so that they would feel free to disclose. One of the officers now works in health care. The other continues to work in law enforcement.
Officer #1: Male, married, 40-something
PO #1: So what’s this blog about?
Me: I write mainly about social justice and civil rights issues for racialized, marginalized and vulnerable persons.
PO #1: Hmm. Why, do you get paid to do this?
PO #1: So you just do this for fun? What, do people write to you and say stuff like ‘good writing’?
Me: Not really. The blog is pretty controversial. Not everyone agrees with my point of view, and …..you might not really like what I’m going to say next.
PO #1: (taking a deep breath, shifting position and straightening his back) Go ahead. You can tell me anything you want.
Me: You know there have been a lot of shootings of black youth by the Toronto police since the 1970′s and I’m looking into it. I also think the Somali kid who got shot in the alleged home invasion in Peel seems a bit unusual, too. So I wrote about that, too. That blog sparked a lot of hateful comments. Many comments I could not approve and some of them were overtly racist so were inappropriate to publish on the blog.
PO #1: You know, you don’t look like a cop-hater.
Me: I’m not. I just think that policing should be ethical. There was a police officer last year that had to bring in another police officer who had been drinking and driving and..
PO #1: (he cuts me off – not maintaining eye contact, looking away to the side) So what do you care if some Somali kid got shot?
Me: Because I do.
PO #1: So you want your kind of justice.
Me: (I’m beginning to feel quite anxious here, but I continue on) My kind of justice? Shouldn’t justice be the same for everyone? Tell me you don’t care about this Somali kid.
PO #1: (maintaining eye contact with a great deal of effort, gritting his teeth) I..Don’t…Care. (the corners of his outer eyelids droop in sadness)
Me: You care. I can see that you care.
PO #1: (looking to the side, shifting position, sighing) No I don’t. They shoot each other, too. Didn’t you know that?
Me: (sadly) Yes, they do. I’ve been writing about something else, too. I witnessed a Toronto police officer shoot a black kid back in 1996. I saw the whole thing from start to finish.
PO #1: (he starts writing down what I say) Okay, when was this exactly?
Me: January 10th, 1996. The black boy was Tommy Barnett. They say he had a sword, but it was only a flag. I saw the whole thing from my apartment window.
PO #1: (sounding edgy, writing again) What was your address?
Me: 3 Claxton Blvd. apt #302.
PO #1: Who was the shooting officer?
Me: ( I tell him the officer’s name)
PO #1: (sounding angry) You’re talking about my friend. I worked with that guy. And that kid was a man.
Me: That kid was 22-years-old.
PO #1: That’s a man. (spoken emphatically) I can’t deal with this. I’m not talking to you about this. I’m getting someone else(He begins to walk away)
Me: Does your friend know I’m writing this blog?
PO #1: No. And he’s not gonna know. I don’t want him to know.
Me: How is he doing? Is he still working as a police officer?
PO #1: (still upset, edgy) Yes. He’s doing just fine. And yes, it was a flag, but there was also a sword. You should read the entire inquest before you write these things. It’s not as if you..well, yes you did see it, so…(with some sarcasm) okay, so tell me all about it. So you heard the sirens and you went to the window.
Me: Actually, I don’t know what brought me to the window, I don’t remember sirens but anyway…I went to the window and I see a cruiser in the middle of Bathurst St close to what was originally Haber’s pharmacy. The cruiser was parked on a diagonal across Bathurst St. The officer was standing outside the cruiser on the driver’s side and moved along the length of the vehicle until he was closer to the back near the trunk. With his back to the cruiser he took aim and shot. It happened pretty quickly. It seemed like just a few minutes between him watching Tommy and the shooting taking place. The other officer didn’t seem to want anything to do with it. He was standing on the other side of the cruiser, sideways, looking over.
PO #1: (stated matter-of-factly) There wasn’t another officer there.
Me: Yes, there was.
PO #1: (less matter-of-factly, more casual) Oh yeah, that’s right he did have a partner sometimes. Well, you don’t want to know what I think of him, ratting Ben out like that.
Me: (I don’t know if this is true or not, but I want to see the officer’s reaction) He didn’t.
PO #1: (visibly taken aback, pulls his head back and straightens up quickly). You know it was snowy that night. The ground was icy.
Me: The shot was from at least 15 feet. That’s quite a distance.
PO #1: It was icy. You know I’ve gotta give you credit for looking into this, but you’ve got a lot of nerve doing this. (incredulously) And, you put your actual name on your blog and your picture? That’s not a good idea. If you were my sister, I’d tell you to..
Me: (cutting him off) You’d tell me not to do it, right? It’s dangerous to write about this, isn’t it? I want people to know who is writing this so that it can be verified.
PO #1: Listen. I’m not gonna tell you not to do this but do it by proxy, okay? You’re writing about this stuff, but you don’t know how it is. You don’t know what its like when you’ve got someone pointing a weapon at you and you have to protect yourself.
Me: One black teenager was shot in the back.
PO #1: (emphatically) I’d shoot someone in the back, too. If I’ve got a person who was a threat to my partner, I’d shoot him and I don’t care what my supervisor says or the chief of police. You got that? And if someone was running towards you with a weapon in their hand, I wouldn’t worry about whether I was shooting centre mass or not, I’d ram them with my vehicle if I was in it. (sarcastically) You want to sit at home in your nice little house and watch tv after dinner with your nice little families while we’re out here dealing with all this stuff so that you can feel safe. So, you can feel safe.
Me: (thinking to myself: I don’t feel safe with ‘police justice’) That boy who was shot in the back didn’t have a weapon, wasn’t threatening anybody.
PO #1: That guy you saw shot. Did you know he was giving us a hard time? Did you know he was giving us trouble?
Me: (dumbfounded, wondering what kind of hard time Tommy gave the police that deserved being shot in the head)
PO #1: I’ll bet for five bucks you can get a copy of the whole inquest. You need to read the whole thing.
Me: I’m going to do that.
Officer #2: Female, separated, 40-something
Me: I had an interesting conversation with a former Toronto Police officer the other day. We were talking about my blog and the shootings by Toronto police officers of black youth.
PO #2: Shootings of black youth?
Me: Well, there has been quite a few shootings since the late 1970′s and nothing has changed. I saw a black guy get shot from my apartment window by a Toronto police officer in 1996. I didn’t speak up back then, but I’m writing about it now on my blog. I started after Michael Eligon was shot last year. He was wearing only a hospital gown, toque and socks when he was shot by Toronto police. He was holding blunt-ended scissors in each hand at his sides walking towards police when he was shot.
PO #2: What?
Me: When I talked with this former Toronto police officer, he said that he’d shoot a kid in the back if he had to.
PO #2: (incredulously) In the back? How can you shoot a kid in the back? That kid better be facing you and he better have a weapon in his hand.
Me: Nope. No weapon. And, the police officer who shot that kid in the back was not charged.
PO #2: What? If I had to shoot a kid, he’d have to have a weapon and I’d have to be in danger and I’d wait until I absolutely had to. It would be a hard decision.
Me: How do you’d think you’d feel afterwards?
PO #2: I’d want to quit. I think any officer who shot someone would find it difficult to work after that. That’s how much it would affect someone.
Me: The officer who shot the guy I saw shot, is still working. Others are, too. How long did you work for Toronto Police?
PO #2: Two years.
Me: That wasn’t long. What happened?
PO #2: I was always getting into trouble.
Me: For what?
PO #2: I wasn’t hard enough on people. I’d feel bad for someone if they were upset and I wouldn’t give them a traffic ticket sometimes. I was also kind to the people we took into custody. My supervisor didn’t like that. So, I quit.
Me: Do you think it might have something to do with being female or male?
PO #2: No. There are female officers who are just as bad as the guys. You know, arrogant, tough, cynical, suspicious. Some are tougher!
Me: Do you miss policing?
PO #2: Yeah. Thinking of applying for OPP. You know, there are police officers who haven’t drawn their gun in thirty years of service.
Me: Wow, that’s good to know.