At 7:45 p.m. on Dec. 8, a .38-calibre bullet smashed through the rear window of a stolen black Nissan Maxima sedan and into the brain of its 17-year-old driver. Fifteen hours later, Michael Wade Lawson died when doctors disconnected his body from a life-support system at Mississauga Hospital, just west of Toronto. The moments of shattering gunfire left a legacy of anger and distrust. The youth happened to be black. The bullet that killed him was one of several fired by two plainclothes policemen. The next day, the Peel Regional Police Force declared that the officers had fired at the high-powered Maxima in self-defence after its driver, ignoring an order to stop, drove directly at them. But Lawson’s grieving family and friends accused the police of racist violence. Lawson, said mourner Milton Blake at the youth’s funeral, had been “cut down by the hunter’s gun, sealed by the badge of law.” Added Dari Meade, a member of Toronto’s Black Action Defence Committee: “We want murder charges.”
Tragedies: Lawson’s death was a sad addendum to a growing list of tragedies that has forced a painful reassessment of relations between Canadian police and the communities they are sworn to serve. Among some Canadians—especially the expanding communities of visible minorities—there is vocal suspicion that police forces are, at best, out of touch with a changing society and, at worst, racist. In squad cars and station houses across the country, meanwhile, policemen and a growing number of policewomen say that it has become more difficult and dangerous to keep the peace and enforce the law. As grievances mount on both sides, so do the number of victims. Spokesmen for police point to the toll of suicide and divorce among serving officers, while the mourning relatives of police shootings point to the dead.
Controversial: Lawson was the second black Toronto-area resident in four months to die after being shot by police, and the most recent in a series of controversial killings. Last Aug. 9, a policeman shot and killed Lester Donaldson, a 44-year-old black man, in a Toronto rooming house. A police spokesman quoted Const. David Deviney as saying that he fired at Donaldson to defend his partner when Donaldson lunged at him with a knife. In Montreal last February, black leaders alleged racism when a jury acquitted Const. Allen Gosset of a manslaughter charge after he had shot and killed an unarmed black 19-year-old, Anthony Griffin, the previous November. Griffin—wanted for breaking and entering—had heeded an order to surrender after briefly bolting from police custody.
During the month following Gosset’s acquittal—which the Crown is now appealing— Manitoba Indian leader John Joseph Harper died from a police bullet fired during a scuffle with Winnipeg constable Robert Cross on a city street. Then, in June, Vancouver police shot and killed a distraught, knife-wielding psychiatric patient, Gregory Coghlan, in what a coroner’s jury later determined to be “victim-precipitated homicide... a species of suicide.” After each eruption of fatal police gunfire, investigators groped for explanations. In Quebec and Manitoba, commissions have begun inquiries into police treatment of racial minorities. And one week after Lawson’s death, Ontario Solicitor General Joan Smith named a five-member civilian panel to examine relations between the police and minority groups.
Spokesmen for ethnic minorities are the most vocal critics of police conduct across the country. Among the general public, surveys conducted by Gallup Canada Inc. show that 50 per cent of Canadians consider the country’s 52,500 police officers to be highly or very highly trustworthy—as many as had expressed the same opinion in 1976. But even among those who express general satisfaction with the police, say observers of community attitudes, personal contacts with police officers are seldom either welcome or relaxed. “We have a love/hate relationship with police,” observed John Sewell, a former mayor of Toronto and author of the 1985 study Police. “We need them to save us from dangerous situations, yet we feel they impinge on our lives.”
For their part, police officers across Canada told Maclean’s that they view their fellow citizens with growing distrust, frustration and a sense of deepening isolation. “A police officer coming on a case is resented by everyone,” said Robert Menard, 54, a burly 30-year veteran of the Montreal Urban Community police force, for one. “But how the hell can a civilian understand what we deal with every day? You are God damned right we are frustrated.”
Pressures: There are 13,483 Royal Canadian Mounted Police who enforce federal law and provide rural service in eight provinces and the North. Provincial police forces operate in Ontario and Quebec, while most cities and towns have their own municipal police. Many of them who spoke to Maclean’s correspondents said that the mounting pressures of their work—and the strident pitch of public criticism—have resulted in low morale and a growing number of stress-related personal problems. According to one survey, as many as 75 per cent of police marriages end in divorce. In Halifax, Montreal and Calgary, among other cities, the rising number of stress-linked complaints—including alcohol abuse, domestic violence and depression—has prompted the establishment of counselling services for emotionally troubled officers. Social scientists and other observers say that a number of factors have converged to raise the level of stress on Canadian police. In an increasingly urbanized society, economic pressures, the growing use of drugs and an influx of immigrants from cultures with different traditions and attitudes toward the law have contributed to a rising level of violent crime that police must routinely deal with. At the same time, the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with its clear definitions of individual rights, and the 1984 Young Offenders Act—which some officers say limits their ability to deal with criminals under 18—have intensified the scrutiny when police fall short of demanding standards of conduct.
Discipline: There is impassioned debate, however, over what must be corrected in order to restore the tarnished honor of the policeman’s badge. Sewell blames the military-style discipline that still pervades most police forces. “Look at the conditions of the normal cop on the beat,” he said in an interview. “They are treated badly in a 19th-century management structure. And they lash out.” On the other hand, the director of the University of Regina’s prairie justice research school, James Harding, criticizes the recruitment into uniform of “kids who see police work as a mandate to play rough.” In Montreal, newspaper columnist George Springate, a former city policeman who also served for 11 years in the Quebec legislature, says that the public demands too much of police. “We have to stop picking on the police, expecting them to be saviors for everything that goes wrong in society,” said Springate. “They aren’t miracle workers.”
The debate has acquired new urgency with the recent rash of controversial shootings involving police officers. On the Mississauga street of new brick homes where Wade Lawson’s life ended, the red spray paint that investigators had used to mark the spot where the stolen Maxima came to rest quickly disappeared under a mid-December dusting of snow. Other details have emerged slowly in brief statements by police and in news reports.
Tip: The events that led to Lawson’s death began shortly after midnight on Dec. 8, when the Grade 11 high-school student stepped from a car driven by his cousin, Dale Ewers, and crossed a Mississauga street to the parking lot of a Nissan dealership at about the time that someone stole a black Maxima. Within hours, a tip from a security guard at a nearby motel led constables Darren Longpre and Anthony Melaragni to set up a daylong surveillance near Ewers’s home. Shortly after 7:30 p.m., a Maxima, bearing stolen New York state licence plates, pulled into a driveway facing the house and a passenger got out. As the car backed onto the street and began to drive away, Longpre and Melaragni got out of their own car to intercept it.
According to the statement issued by the Peel regional police, Longpre and Melaragni approached the stolen Maxima and identified themselves to two occupants with the intention of placing them under arrest. But when the car “accelerated directly at” the two officers, the statement continued, they opened fire “in defence of their lives,” unleashing at least half a dozen bullets. Indeed, the Toronto Globe and Mail later reported that officers close to the investigation had said that the Maxima knocked one of the policemen to the ground as it sped away, prompting both officers to fire at the fleeing automobile. That report added that one of the bullets fired had penetrated the car’s rear window, richocheted inside the vehicle and struck Lawson in the back of the head.
‘Nigger’: However, another youth who was in the car at the time of the shooting, but who escaped uninjured, told a Lawson family lawyer that he had heard nothing before the police opened fire. And the 17-year-old youth, who has been charged with possession of stolen property and cannot be named under the Young Offenders Act, added that after the officers pulled him from the Maxima, one policeman kicked him and called him a “nigger.”
The day after the shooting, Peel Police Chief William Teggart requested an Ontario Provincial Police investigation of the affair. The OPP report, which could recommend criminal charges against the Peel police officers, is expected to be completed later this month. Still, even while the investigation continued, one local black activist, Al Peabody, predicted that its findings would be “a whitewash.” Added the youth’s father, Winston Lawson, who owns a gravel business: “They are police investigating other police. Naturally, they have sympathy for each other.” The charge was dismissed by OPP spokesman Insp. Robert Guay. Declared Guay: “The OPP is a credible force. The family can be assured of a thorough, unbiased investigation.” By late last week, however, the OPP had not laid charges against either Longpre or Melaragni.
Risk: Many police officers express a growing sense of injury. Complaints of police brutality are far outnumbered by police accounts of violence suffered at the hands of the public. A badge and uniform are no protection against daily dangers that range from a drunk’s wildly thrown punch to the fear of AIDS infection through contact with an accident victim’s blood. In addition, there is the ever-present risk of death from criminal gunfire. Between 1978 and 1987, 35 on-duty police officers have been killed in Canada.
Beyond the fear for their own safety, police officers interviewed by Maclean’s expressed a deepening sense of grievance. They complained about high demands and low salaries. First-class constables typically earn between $42,000 and $47,000 a year across the country. As well, work loads have become heavier, as Canada’s crime rate recorded a 27-per-cent increase between 1978 and 1986—with violent crimes jumping by 45 per cent— while police forces grew by only six per cent over the same period. At the same time, the very nature of police work forces officers into close daily contact with society’s least successful members. “We deal with the dregs of society,” said Montreal’s Menard, who was shot in the left lung and right leg while trying to prevent a bank robbery in 1985. “We deal with violence, with abuse. We deal with what you as a civilian don’t want to have anything to do with.”
Often there is little time to weigh choices before reacting. Noted Menard: “We make a judgment call in very tense and explosive situations in an instant, and we must be right the first and only time.” In such conditions, said John Sawatsky, a Toronto-based psychologist who counsels OPP members, it is not surprising that an officer sometimes makes a wrong decision. “People who are stressed as much as police officers,” said Sawatsky, “sometimes lose their judgment.” The consequences for a reaction that appears in retrospect to have been wrong can be a fine, dismissal from the force or criminal charges. “At the back of a policeman’s mind,” said Jacques Duchesneau, the head of Montreal’s organized crime squad, “is always the thought that one quick reaction could live with you for a long time.”
Duchesneau, like many police officers, says that the decisions have become more complex in the 1980s. Growing Caribbean, Chinese and Vietnamese communities have become targets for ethnic criminal organizations that are difficult for Canadian police—still overwhelmingly white—to penetrate. Calgary Police Chief Ernest Reimer, who will retire this month at 55, says that “there is a heavy degree of mistrust [of the police] in these new ethnic communities.” In many cities, the mistrust is reinforced by an imbalance between the ethnic makeup of police and that of the city they serve. In Toronto, although visible minorities account for 20 per cent of the city’s 2.2 million people, according to Sher Singh, chairman of the Toronto Council on Race Relations and Policing, they number only five per cent of its 5,400 police—and hold no ranks above staff inspector.
Work load: Beyond the charged emotions that radiate from each controversial shooting, however, statistics suggest that Canadian policemen fare well when breakdowns in discipline are weighed against their work load. Among the few forces that release such figures, the RCMP recorded 2,500 complaints about its officers in 1987—fewer than 0.09 per cent of its three million contacts with the public. The figure for Toronto’s force was even lower: fewer than 0.08 per cent of the 1,045,000 calls Toronto police answered last year led to complaints against the force. Fatal shootings by Canadian police—an average of eight each year between 1961 and 1981—are few by comparison with those in the United States, where police kill at least one person every day.
Still, many Canadian police officers acknowledge that they must do more to regain public confidence. Some steps have already been taken. Educational standards for police recruits have risen. As well, police training programs have been redesigned to emphasize psychology and communication skills and to discourage cadets from viewing themselves as gun-toting enforcers. In answer to allegations that they fail to reflect their community’s ethnic mix, urban forces in Toronto and Vancouver have launched active recruiting drives in the two cities’ burgeoning immigrant communities.
At the same time, governments increasingly are moving toward the establishment of civilian review boards to investigate complaints against the police. Complaints against RCMP members have been handled by a civilian review panel since last September. And legislation introduced in the Quebec national assembly in November will give civilian panels the right to hold public inquiries into allegations of police misconduct in that province. Similar boards already exist in Nova Scotia and in the cities of Calgary and Toronto. But the spread of civilian panels has been slowed by police resistance.
Tension: Meanwhile, the commissions appointed after the Lawson, Griffin and Harper shootings continue to search for new measures to restore the corroded relationship between police and the public. Their tasks are complicated by deep emotions on both sides of a complex issue. “Police feel abandoned,” said Springate. “And as they come under public criticism, they tend to withdraw more into themselves.” In Mississauga, meanwhile, Milton Blake told Wade Lawson’s mourners last month that “we must rise up to become the protectors of our own interests.” But such sentiments seemed unlikely to help reduce the tension in any future confrontation between armed police and the citizens they are sworn to protect.