Imagine if you will, tomorrow morning you wake up and through some strange overnight twist of fate you are suddenly a police officer. As you ponder whether or not this is a dream or nightmare, you realize you’ll have to suit up and keep the world safe tonight!
Picture yourself in uniform with use of force equipment including a sidearm on your police duty-belt, Kevlar vest over your chest, heading out in a cruiser that is clearly marked “police”. You’ll be patrolling the streets – especially high-crime areas, and responding to calls for service. Undoubtedly you are about to see the best and the worst that society has to offer. You have no desire whatsoever to get into a situation that places your life in jeopardy – potentially taking you from your beloved family, nor do you have any will to take the life of any citizen. In fact you pray that such a situation does not materialize. You just want to do your best and go home safely at the end of the 12 hour shift.
As the hours go by, you help wonderful and truly appreciative people. You enforce the laws and some people curse you over the ticket they receive as they remind you that they “pay your wages”. People on some corners yell at you – call you “pig” and much, much worse. One cop-hater points his bare hand at you like it’s a gun, cocks his thumb and smiles as he pretends to shoot. You know in your heart that he would really do it if he could. You hope he never can.
Then the dispatcher’s voice calls out your car number. A report of an “unknown male, with a handgun” she says. Your heart starts racing and your face feels hot. The witness is rather vague in the rest of description provided; so it could be nothing or the suspect may not be even still be there when you arrive. Or so you hope.
When you get to the described location, there is in fact a man standing there who is wearing comparable attire, his face obscured by a hat and his hands deep in the pockets of his coat. He appears to have seen you and turns his back and briskly walks away. You didn’t even see his face and although he appears to be an adult male of 5 foot 8 or so, you’re not sure of his age. Could he be a young teen? Mid-20’s? Older? You pull up and park ahead of him and step out of the car to speak to him. No backup officers have arrived yet. It’s just you and this suspect and you’re not sure if it’s even the same male that was reported. Is there even anything to this?
So, you keep 15 or 20 feet away and try to talk to him. “Can I speak to you for a minute sir?” He just keeps walking towards you not even lifting his face to reply. It seems like he has no intention of stopping to chat. Did he even hear you? You did speak loudly. What are your authorities? Do you fear bodily harm? Do you pull your gun? He hasn’t threatened you. He has made no aggressive moves. In fact, you don’t even know if it’s the right guy.
You say loudly and clearly, “Can I see your hands please?” Still no face, no eye contact and no response. But suddenly he is pulling one hand out his pocket and there appears to be something in it. You pull your gun, point it and tell him to stop, drop it and show you his hands. But out it comes. You’re less than 10 feet away. He’s in a shadow and you’re not 100% sure, but you think it’s a handgun he’s pulled out and is pointing it towards you. Now what?
If it’s a gun and he gets a shot off, you may well be dead. Full police funeral, grieving spouse and devastated kids to follow. A piper playing Amazing Grace while all your stone-faced colleagues line up in their dress uniforms – tears rolling down their cheeks, saying, “He was a good officer”.
So you fear for your life and shoot twice at his torso. Down he goes. Your heart is pounding right through your chest as you radio in that shots are fired. You can hardly breathe. You hear sirens blaring and cruiser engines roaring in the distance as the sounds of squealing tires draw near. You’re going to go home to your family tonight – eventually, but he isn’t. He is dead.
What happens from here? Is he a kid or adult? “My son is that tall and he’s 12.” Was it really a gun? It sure looked like one. Was it loaded? A replica gun? “Oh my God, I killed someone.” You want to vomit. Did he have a criminal record? Mental health issues? Was he on drugs? Could he have been deaf? What colour is he? It wasn’t a factor but you can’t help but think if he was black, all the cries of racism will begin and violent protests will happen within hours. Will your fellow officer be targeted now like in Baton Rouge? You know you couldn’t live with that if it happened. You pray he’s white while your mind is screaming “I’m not a racist!” Did he have a family? They will have to be notified and will never believe that he would pull a gun on a cop. Nor will his friends. You understand that mindset. “Will they find out my name and address?”
The SIU will be coming. They’ll take away your gun. You will be reassigned to some desk job. You’ll be cut off from all your friends on the department for weeks. The investigation could take several months. You may be charged at worst and you will be dragged through the media day and night at minimum.
You will never be the same officer or human being for the rest of your career and life, when all you wanted to do was go home safely at the end of the day and not have to kill anyone prior to.
It may have been a dream for you, but it’s an ongoing nightmare for police.
Then sadly it is a heart-breaking reality for good, honest and dedicated officers in this country, about 20 times per year. Their lives matter too.
Chris Lewis served as Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police from 2010 until he retired in 2014. He can be seen regularly on CTV and CP24 giving his opinion as a public safety analyst.