JUSTICE

Police in peril

A city pitches in to help a wounded oficer

MARY NEMETH November 1 1993
JUSTICE

Police in peril

A city pitches in to help a wounded oficer

MARY NEMETH November 1 1993

Police in peril

JUSTICE

A city pitches in to help a wounded oficer

Two Canadian policemen died in the line of duty this fall. On Oct. 7, Const. Joseph MacDonald, 29, was gunned down in Sudbury, Ont., after stopping a car for a routine check. A day later, an officer in Calgary, 27-year-old Const. Richard Sonnenberg, was killed when he was struck by a speeding stolen car. That brings to three the number of Canadian policemen killed in action this year. Overall, law enforcement appears increasingly dangerous: according to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, there were 5,907 assaults on police officers last year, up 16 per cent from 5,089 in 1982. As police stations across Canada lowered their flags to half-mast to mourn the deaths of their colleagues, the story of one victim, an officer shot two years ago in Thunder Bay, Ont., illustrates the human cost and suffering beyond the statistics.

Craig Town does not remember what took place in the telephone room at the Thunder Bay police station on the night of Sept. 27,1991. “Nobody knows what happened exactly,” says his friend and fellow officer Jim Mauro. But somehow, a Thunder Bay man taken into custody earlier that Friday evening—for failing to appear in court on a previous assault charge—seized Town’s revolver. He shot the constable in the neck and in the shoulder. In court a year later, Donavan Miller,

now 24, testified that he had been under the influence of LSD at the time of the shooting. He pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and weapons offences, and was sentenced to 12 years in jail. Town was sentenced to life in a wheelchair. The officer’s first recollections are of a week after the incident, while lying in a hospital, paralysed from the neck down. He remembers the “horror of finding out that you’re unable to move—when I first woke up, I thought it would have been better if it had killed me outright.”

Town has spent the more than two years since then in hospital in Thunder Bay and in Hamilton. Now, he is ready to go home. Town,

35, and his wife, Jillian, 30, decided to sell their old house because architects said that it could not be properly renovated to accommodate Town’s special needs. Instead, the couple and their two sons, ages 3 and 5, will be moving in early November into a new, 2,100square-foot bungalow with a brick facade and a double-car garage, a home that is designed to be accessible by wheelchair. More than

30 volunteers, most of them fellow officers, helped build the house, hauling cement blocks and hanging drywall. And about two dozen local businesses have provided everything from the furnace to lumber to paint and wallpaper, either free or at a discount. Meanwhile, the local Kiwanis Club of Westfort raised funds to buy Town a van equipped to handle a wheelchair. Jillian Town has been living in a friend’s camper, and their sons have been staying with relatives near Toronto while the new house is under construction. “I just can’t wait to move in,” says Town. “It’s been overwhelming, all the support and generosity of the community. It’s very humbling.”

The shooting itself deeply shocked the port city of 111,000 on the north shore of

Lake Superior. “Everybody always thought of Thunder Bay as this small little community where these things don’t happen,” Mauro says. That was largely why Town moved to Thunder Bay in the first place. Born in Hamilton and raised in Montreal and Burlington, Ont., Town joined the city’s police force as a civilian cadet in 1989—and was promoted to constable the following year. Before that, “I had a couple of going-nowhere types of jobs, high stress and no options for advancement and lousy pay,” says Town. “I had a friend who was a police officer and I thought I’d give it a try.” He applied through-

out southern Ontario and was considering joining the force in Peel Region, west of Toronto. “But that was the time when all the cops were being shot and stabbed in Peel,” he says. “My wife and I thought Peel was much too dangerous, so we came up here.” When he was shot, Town adds, “I thought, The joke’s on me.’ ”

It took a few weeks after the shooting for Town to start thinking about the future again. “My wife really worked on me,” he says. So did the hospital staff. Physiotherapists would stretch his limbs. “It was very painful at first,” Town says. He has also gone through intensive occupational therapy. “My memory took a real pounding,” he explains. “At first, it was silly things like counting sticks. Now, it’s more like Jeopardy types of games. They basically try to get the brain working again.” Town has also learned to manoeuvre his battery-powered wheelchair through obstacle courses— pressing back on his headrest to accelerate, easing up to slow down.

As he looks forward to his departure from hospital, Town says he spends much of his time watching TV “and telling bad jokes.” But humor can only go so far. “I’d be lying if I’d say there’s no bitterness,” he says. “I miss a lot of things about a normal life. I really miss giving my wife a big hug, and my kids, too. I used to enjoy going out fishing with my friends, and I used to like moose hunting. Although I was always unsuccessful, I used to like getting up at the crack of dawn and shaking and shivering for hours.” Those simple pleasures are out of the question now. A new home, and the generosity of a community, offer a new start in what will surely be a long struggle.

MARY NEMETH