End of watch
Standing at attention in my best dress tunic, the slow beat of the drum issued ominously- pounding like shockwaves through the still morning air. It was snowing and damp. The kind that cuts through your clothing and scrapes your bones. “I’m freezing but there is no way I would be the one to break rank,” I thought and I’m sure my partner, Don Delorme felt the same. Two to three hundred officers from all over north America, mostly from across Canada- lined both sides of this Montreal street for at least a mile, maybe more; I cannot see that far. It was an honour guard for Constable Odette Pinard, 10-years with the Montreal Urban Police, 30 years old and married mother of two young children. In fact she had recently returned from maternity leave. She was in a police storefront, completing a report, and someone had come in and shot her, dead. A shotgun blast to the face, there’s not much more violent act than that. That was in the fall of 1995 and I was honoured to be sent from Winnipeg, where I was a six-year constable, and on the Winnipeg Police Association Board along with Don Delorme.
The single lead officer marched slowly to the beat of the base drum, carrying a pillow with Odette Pinard’s forage cap on it, a tradition in Canadian policing. He led a procession of Montreal Urban police officers followed by several cars with Odette’s family. It moved slowly up the center of the street lined with officers. It seemed to take forever for the sound of the drum to approach, and the procession came into sight. I thought, how great it is for her family, to see all of these officers paying respect. Don and I had packed our tunics, but not our winter coats, thinking we’re from Winnipeg; we don’t need parkas in Montreal. But that biting damp cold was worse than we expected. Many were in work uniforms or overcoats, but Don and I stood at attention, not flinching despite shaking violently from the cold. I just wanted to run into that store across the street and warm up, but thought I am not going to break rank, even if I wind up in the hospital. “The pain is a good thing,” I thought, it reinforces the gravity of the situation. Sure enough, I remember it today as though it just happened and that was 26 years ago, in the winter of 1995. Her murder remains unsolved, but at the time they speculated it was gang retaliation against the police as they had been cracking down hard on organized crime in Quebec. I’ll also never forget the reception afterwards; the emotion and the comradery among all the officers, from all over the place, who were there. Especially among the Montreal officers, I thought this is a family and they would leave no stone unturned to find them. Seeing the way her life and service were cherished and the loss of it mourned really drove home the feeling of the nobility and dignity of policing as a profession. It truly is community service on the deepest aspect. It is not only a willingness to lay down your life for perfect strangers; it could be for a person visiting the city, or homeless and vulnerable people.
Over the years I’ve participated in the honour guards for several other officers and they are all tragic. However, one funeral that stands out in my memory most was for Constable Darren Beatty in 2001 in Calgary Alberta. The story of how he was killed in service is incredibly heartbreaking. He was killed during a hostage-taking response exercise. They were training with live rounds, then took a break and switched to fake ammunition. The guns were unloaded and reloaded with the simunition, but one officer accidentally left a live round chambered. When the exercise resumed, the officer fired one shot, thinking it was fake ammo, shooting Darren in the throat, killing him. The scenario was even more gut-wrenching because the officer who pulled the trigger was Beattie’s best friend. They were buddies on and off the job, stood up for each other at their weddings, and were even building houses next to each other. I was in Calgary on training and attended the honour guard. It was in October and there was no snow, and the officers were spread out much farther apart than they were in Montreal; so, the honour guard was long, maybe several miles.
The Canadian Police and Peace Officers’ Memorial Service is held each September to remember Canadian peace officers slain in the line of duty. I’ve had the honour of participating on about five occasions, and each time it rendered a lasting memory, and a reminder of the sacrifices police officers make every day. Prior to Covid, it was a spectacular gathering of hundreds of officers marched through downtown Ottawa and assembled on the grass in front of Centre Block of Parliament. It always gave us a feeling of pride and respect, and felt especially appropriate for the families of the slain officers. They are placed in front of the steps at Centre Block and the hats of the fallen officers for that year are marched past the families. These honour guards and memorials serve as a symbol of the value that society places on community service and protecting the vulnerable.
For years I subscribed to social media pages that published releases on officers’ “end of watch,” which is police vernacular for being killed in the line of duty. Some of these sites were American, and I had to eventually unsubscribe from them. They become overwhelming because in the US a police officer is killed in the line of duty almost every day, sometimes several in a day. While Canada honors a few each year at the National Memorial Service, the American version at Capital Hill honours over 300 deaths per year.
When tragedy strikes, society’s true value for the police service is highlighted. It is sad that the media and some citizens sometimes get sidetracked from these deep values and respect that the majority of people have for those who dedicate themselves to policing. It would be better if they always started with the perspective that people enter public service to make the world a better place. The sacrifices that officers make are most often not as dramatic as being killed on duty. More often they are killed over a lifetime of physical abuse, nightshifts that take years off your life, and sometimes substance abuse linked to the deep trauma of all those years of exposure to the worst of humanity. Without exception, those officers who serve for decades in policing carry the emotional scars from their service and care for their community to the end of their watch.