The saddest image on the street

Driving in the big city always promises fascinating experiences. In the past week, I’ve encountered: elderly drivers who seem to think that Stop signs indicate “optional”; drivers who don’t know how to, or won’t, slow down in winter conditions (let’s just say they’re the ones who drive like they wish they were on the Autobahn, and have the vehicles to go with it); and a good number of accident scenes on the side of the highway, including police vehicles and tow trucks and vehicles with names like “Avenger”, “Charger”, and “Challenger”. But the one thing that really stuck out in my mind was the saddest image I’ve ever seen on a city street.

Driving on Friday morning just before noon, I noticed something rather curious: a city police car pulled up and stopped in the dead centre of a major intersection, and the lone occupant of the vehicle calmly walked into middle of the intersection. He put on his hat, blew on his whistle, and proceeded to direct traffic. He held his hands up for south- and northbound traffic to stop, and then waved through a solemn-looking procession of about four or five gray vehicles. Several were long vehicles (though I’d hesitate to call them limousines) with tinted windows, and in the middle of the group was a single gray hearse. As the hearse passed by the police officer, he raised his hand to the brim of his hat and saluted.

I wondered right away if this could have been the hearse carrying Sergeant Ryan Russell, the police officer who was killed by the snowplow thief this week. But even if it hadn’t been for him, I can’t remember seeing a salute that made me sadder than that one. A single police officer, doing what looks like regular traffic duty, all of a sudden standing to attention and saluting a single hearse, and yet, no one in particular.

All the times that I’ve seen on t.v., police officers saluting at a colleague’s funeral, or when I’d driven past crowds of ordinary citizens waving Canadian flags on the overpasses as a soldier’s body is brought down the Highway of Heroes, I don’t remember feeling the same way. Maybe it’s because those seem more like celebrations of life, although obviously that is not the appropriate word to use. Maybe it’s because though we hate to admit it, we expect and are not surprised by the loss of life in military combat. But the loss of a police officer in everyday duty, a much rarer occurence—now that hits us hard. And the vision of a single officer, not a whole group, honouring a death—that hits even harder.

In any case, that was an arresting image that stayed on my mind on an otherwise beautiful, sunny winter morning. I know that the Toronto police have been getting a really bad rap lately, due to the G20 fiasco. However, the image of this one saluting officer made up for all of that, and made me appreciate the police service more than ever before.

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