Toronto van attack: the cop who didn’t shoot

Firing line: “I have a gun in my pocket!” yelled Minassian. “I don’t care,” replied the cop.

Is Canada’s calm cop a hero? After a van drove through pedestrians, killing 10, the public has praised the policeman who arrested the suspected driver. He says he was just doing his job.

Two men face one another across a deserted road in Toronto, Canada. One is an armed policeman. The other is a suspected killer; he too appears to be holding a gun. “Kill me,” shouts the suspect. “No, get down,” replies the cop. The suspect moves as if to shoot, but he does not, and as the cop closes in he raises his hands in surrender.

Moments earlier, a van had ploughed through pedestrians on a sunny street nearby, killing 10 and injuring 15 more. The suspected driver has since been identified as 25-year-old Alek Minassian. The police say that the act was deliberate. Yet even after Minassian seemingly ended so many lives, the cop who arrested him refused to take his.

As phone footage of the extraordinary standoff went viral, people praised the cop’s calm conduct online. Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, confirmed that officers are trained to use as little force as possible, but that in this tough situation the cop — who remains anonymous — would have been justified in shooting.

“This guy is a hero,” said McCormack.

Some disagreed: one academic argued that the officer had a “duty” to kill a dangerous and apparently armed man. Others countered that he might have seen that the suspect’s gun was a fake, or recognised the situation as an attempted “suicide by cop”. Many compared his reaction favourably to trigger-happy officers in the US.

Vehicle rampage attacks are increasingly common — they have killed hundreds since 2016, mostly in Europe. They are often carried out by Islamist terrorists in major cities, using a rented van or car. In response, many cities are lining pavements with protective barriers and bollards.

The reasons behind the Toronto attack are not yet clear. The police see no wider threat to society, which implies that they have ruled out terrorism. Speculation surrounds Minassian, who has been described as “mentally ill”. It is rare for the suspect behind such an attack to survive, and his upcoming trial may shed light on his motives.

Licence to keep alive

The cop is a hero for not killing Minassian, say some. He risked his own life in the name of the law. Thanks to his efforts, we will hopefully learn more about why such hideous attacks happen. He also demonstrated that violence does not have to be met with violence: an important moral lesson for us all.

Come off it, reply others. We don’t know why the cop didn’t shoot — maybe he just froze — and we shouldn’t be surprised anyway. As he himself reportedly said, he was just doing his job. We are ignoring the real story here: the 25 casualties. We should let the police get on with their work, and focus on new ways to prevent attacks like this.

You Decide

  1. Would you make a good police officer?
  2. Would the cop have been wrong to kill Minassian?

Activities

  1. Write your own definition of the word “hero”. Give two examples of heroes, explaining your choices.
  2. The authorities in your country’s capital city are looking for ways to protect against vehicle rampage attacks. In groups, write a proposal for a new policy.

Some People Say...

“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
At 1:30pm local time on Monday, a van mounted the pavement on Toronto’s Yonge Street and started hitting pedestrians. It drove “very fast” for around two kilometres. “He was going in and out, back and forth, zigzagging,” noted one witness. Thirty minutes after being called, the police arrested Minassian. He is appearing in court today.
What do we not know?
Minassian has not yet been convicted. If he is the killer, his motives are unknown. Former schoolmates have described him as unsociable, odd, harmless and brilliant with computers. On his Facebook page, he appears to have praised Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in California in 2014 after complaining that women were giving him no attention. However, the post has not yet been verified.

Word Watch

Toronto
Canada’s largest city, and one of the most multicultural places in the world. Monday’s attack is one of the deadliest in Canadian history.
One academic
Michael Lyman, professor of Criminal Justice Administration at Columbia College of Missouri, US.
Suicide by cop
When somebody deliberately provokes the police into killing them, they are said to have committed suicide by cop. Some insist that the term should only be used if the victim was suicidal and planned the incident (rather than spontaneously deciding to die in a showdown with the police).
Trigger-happy officers
Police shootings of (often unarmed) African-American men are a particular cause of controversy in the US. These incidents have helped to spur the Black Lives Matter movement.
Hundreds
The deadliest such attack happened in Nice, France in July 2016. A lorry drove into crowds celebrating Bastille Day, killing 87 (including the driver) and injuring 458.
Islamist terrorists
There are exceptions. For instance, a man who hated Muslims drove a van into a crowd outside a London mosque in June 2017, killing one.

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