The paper cup had barely touched my lips when the warble sounded on the police radio, warning of a serious crime in progress. I’d been craving this Tim Horton’s Double-Double for hours. But for now it would have to wait.
The dispatcher’s hurried voice came across with the details.
“District Two units…
“One caller reporting a man with a knife…
“Northwest corner, Columbia and Hastings…”
I fumbled around for the cup holder, rolled up my window, and cranked the police radio in my Crown Victoria to hear the next update.
“The suspect is standing under the red awning on the northwest corner, wearing a red shirt.”
Man-with-knife calls occur almost daily on the Downtown Eastside, which is part of Vancouver’s District Two. There are four districts in the city.
Most of the time they turn out to be non-events – a carver whittling a piece of wood or a street person picking scabs or digging under his toe nails. So whenever a man-with-knife call is broadcast, the first questions we ask is, “What’s he doing with the knife?”
The answer, in this case, came blaring through the radio as I pressed the button to activate my lights and siren.
“Caller says he was fighting with another male,” the dispatcher said.
“Suspect is still holding the knife.”
I raced to Columbia and Hastings, angled my car to a stop and got out. The suspect was standing right in front of me, still on the corner. I could see he was clutching something in his hands. I assumed it was the knife, although it was late at night and the lighting was bad.
I could hear the sirens from other police cars that were getting closer. I drew my gun from the holster on my right hip, pointed it, and began barking commands.
“Show me your hands…drop the knife…”
“Drop the knife.”
Glassy stare and clenched fists.
“DROP! THE! KNIFE!”
I measured the distance between the man and myself – about 20 feet.
It was way too close for comfort.
A goal-oriented man with a knife could close that gap in a couple of seconds. He could charge us, and stab me, my partner, or one of the many onlookers before I even had time to react.
I looked around at the other police officers that had shown up to cover me, hoping one of them had a taser. No such luck.
I scanned the area for cover, then took a couple steps back. I squinted my left eye as I stared down the slide toward the man at the other end. Slowly, the blurry figure came into focus.
I recognized him from the beat. He was — and still is — one of the worst examples of someone who is Lost in Transition. Drug addicted, volatile and severely mentally ill, he’s spent much of his adult life drifting between jails, psychiatric hospitals and the Downtown Eastside — which is the only place he knows outside of the locked rooms and fenced-in yards of prisons and institutions.
He’d just recently been released, after someone apparently deemed him fit enough to live with the rest of society.
And now he was staring down the wrong end of a gun.
I’ve never had to fire my gun outside of the practice range and I couldn’t tell you what it sounds like to hear a shot fired without the buffer of thick ear protection. I have only come close to shooting someone once, and I can tell you it’s a sickening feeling.
It’s even worse when you know the man you might have to shoot, and you know that he is not a criminal so much as someone who has slipped through the cracks.
As I stood on the corner of Columbia and Hastings, prepared to shoot this man if he made the wrong move, I couldn’t help but wonder what the world would think of me if I had to kill someone who was mentally ill.
Our standoff seemed like minutes. In reality it was only about 20 seconds. Still, it was long enough for a crowd of looky-loos to pull out their iPhones and hit record. The moment was not lost on them. They were there to record that last moments of this man’s life — and undoubtedly the worst moment of mine — in all its YouTube glory.
One member of the iPhone paparazzi actually tried to angle himself behind the suspect so he could capture this poor man’s point of view when the bullet left my gun.
It made me sick.
I felt like I was starting to beg for cooperation.
“Please sir…please, I don’t want to hurt you.”
Suddenly, as if I’d just uttered the secret password, he opened his fists and threw his hands in the air. A crack pipe, a push stick and a nail file dropped to the sidewalk. There was no knife. The 911 caller must have seen the crack pipe or the nail file and thought it was a knife.
He raised his hands in surrender, laid down on the pavement and was placed in handcuffs.
I holstered my gun and leaned in to search him. As I did, he turned his head to the side and muttered an apology. It gave me chills.
I became a police officer because I wanted to take bullies, cheaters and liars off the street. When I first started out, I had dreams about charging into banks and taking down robbers wearing Richard Nixon masks and pantyhose on their heads. I pictured myself chasing gangsters down dark alleyways and holding them at gunpoint until backup arrived.
Never did I imagine that my most dangerous moments as a cop would be not with gangsters and bank robbers, but with people who are frightened and delusional due to mental illness and psychosis.
Granted, I’m sure it has something to do with where I choose to work.
Here in the Downtown Eastside, it’s estimated that half of all police contacts involve a person who is mentally ill – often one who is undiagnosed or untreated. Combine that with severe drug addictions, poverty, hunger and despair of living in Canada’s worst urban slum, and it creates a catastrophic cocktail.
Sadly, I have several police brothers and sisters who have been left with no choice but to shoot and kill, and the reality is some of the victims have been mentally ill. The officers did what they had to do to protect themselves and the public. Still, I know that none of them will ever be the same.
I could have become one of them that night at Columbia and Hastings, but for a bit of good fortune. It’s a moment that was not lost on me, as I picked up the man, dusted him off and walked him home.
Somehow, we had managed to avoid a tragedy. Still, I couldn’t help wondering if the results will be the same next time. Because I know there will be a next time. Given the current state of affairs, it’s not a matter of if, but when.Share