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A Call to 911

Saturday, August 25, 2018

It was a delightful evening for a walk.  The ferocious heat wave, that had been roasting Winnipeg for the past several weeks, has abated.  Our granddaughter, Alexa, was our guest for an early dinner, and when she went home, Heather and I decided to walk with her to her apartment, which is not far from our place, and then continue on our own, ambling through the neighbourhood, enjoying the mild evening air, and looking at the mix of heritage homes and modern urban condos.

Then, when we found ourselves passing the rear of the local Safeway grocery store, Heather remembered some items we needed to buy, so we went up the lane beside the store, towards the front of the building...

And, as we rounded the corner, we found two men standing on the walkway, staring at one another, not far from the store’s entrance.  The atmosphere between them was tense, so I stopped, and asked what was going on.

The shorter of the two men identified himself as a “Loss Prevention Officer” for Safeway, then he spoke to the other man (whom I will call “Big Man,” since I do not know his name and he did not identify himself), and said, “Come into my office and sign a paper,” an instruction that Big Man clearly had no intention of obeying.  Instead, Big Man – whose back was to the store – made as if to pass the officer, and go on his way.  The officer moved to prevent such passage.

Big Man moved to the right, and the officer moved to block him.  Big man moved to the left, and again the officer moved to block him.  At this point there was no physical contact.

Big Man, saying something aggressive, moved forward more forcefully, and the officer backed up and continued to block his passage.  Then I heard Big Man taunt the officer, “You going to hit me?  You f__ker.”  The officer replied in kind, and the “F-bomb” was now frequently heard, from both men.

They had moved off the walkway and on to the parking lot, at a point, usually busy with traffic, where parking lot lanes make an intersection.

Then the Big Man threw a punch at the head of the officer, who ducked, and reached out to grab and restrain Big Man.  They grappled violently.  A white shopping bag fell to the ground and a package, that appeared to be bacon, fell out of it.  Both men now tumbled to the roadway, each attempting to put the other in a headlock.  A cellphone fell out of one of their pockets.  Other store staff had come out by now, and were attempting, without much success, to help restrain Big Man.  A crowd was gathering.

As Big Man appeared to be extremely strong, and was making as if he could throw off his assailants, yelling the “F-bomb” and being quite frightening, I called out to him to calm down and cooperate.  Without a response, and with the struggle intensifying, I shouted, “Should I call 911?” and I heard a muffled “yes” from someone.

At 7:56 PM (according to my phone log) the 911 call was made.  The operator had difficulty hearing me, due to the noise from the scuffle and the voices of several people around, but soon she assured me that the police were notified, and were on their way.

Meanwhile, Heather had gone into the store to get the manager, and soon returned with him and with other store staff.  Thankfully, one of the clerks, whom I know as David, and who is a much larger person than Big Man, moved in to help the officer, who may, at that point have been underneath Big Man, all of them being in the middle of the parking lot intersection.  Cars, coming from three directions were stopped and lined up, unable to proceed.

The struggle continued.  At one point a slender woman called out to Big Man, “He hit you first! I saw him!”  To which I, and several other bystanders, said, “Not true!” and indicated that Big Man had thrown the first punch.  But Big Man appreciated the slender woman’s words and called out to her, asking her to be a witness in his favour.

I must insist here that the slender woman – wearing a beige coat and carrying several shopping bags – was nowhere near when Big Man threw his punch, while I was three feet away from the two men, never having taken my eyes off them.  In fact, I do not recall the officer ever throwing a punch; he merely tried to restrain his assailant, but there was a lot of movement and I cannot be entirely sure that the officer did no punching.1.

Twelve minutes passed, and no police had yet arrived.  There was sufficient time for one or the other combatant to do a lot of damage.  Thankfully, David and some other staff eventually helped to restrain Big Man, and persuaded – or, more likely, forced – him to accept the handcuffs that the officer had with him.  The staff got Big Man to his feet, and walked him into the store.  A few minutes later a police siren could be heard, and then a marked police car came into the parking lot.  I motioned the officers to go into the store, telling them that the people they wanted were probably now in the store’s office area.  I followed them in, but did not myself enter the office area.  A few moments later, the store manager came and spoke to me, saying that the cellphone, which I had picked up, belonged to the Loss Prevention Officer, so I gave it to him.

Eventually, the police emerged, with Big Man between them, still handcuffed.  Outside, by the squad car, I heard them tell Big Man that he was under arrest.  They frisked him, telling him beforehand that this was what they were going to do.  Their manner was firm, and professional, and there was no further violence.  Having done the frisk, they put him into the back seat of the car.  At this point, the two arresting officers were joined by a police supervisor – I guess he had come in his own vehicle while I was inside the store.  He had determined that I was a major witness, and asked me to write up everything that I had observed, and the above account is, more or less, what I ended up writing.

Police officers frisking a suspect by a police car
The Arrest
Implications for a Christian

It’s seems pretty natural, doesn’t it?  See a fight, and call the police.  The police come, armed, and trained to control violence, with force, if required.  They make an arrest, and eventually a perpetrator is convicted and possibly sent to jail – forcibly removed from society.  Law and order.

In this case, Big Man had been observed taking some meat product out of the store without paying for it.  It is the job of a “Loss Prevention Officer” to make sure he doesn’t get away.

But the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount keep ringing in my ears.  “Do not resist those who wrong you.” and “Give to anyone who asks,” and, most memorably, “If anyone wants to sue you and takes your shirt, let him have your cloak as well.”2.

Wouldn’t this mean that the Safeway store should have simply given Big Man the meat product?  And thrown in some more for good measure?

Of course, no business can operate for very long if they make payment for their products and services optional!  How can Jesus’ dictum be applied in this very real and difficult world of ours?

And what about some other words of Jesus, also found in the Sermon on the Mount: “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other also.”  When Big Man lobbed that punch at the officer, shouldn’t the officer have turned the other cheek?  In doing so, of course, he would not only have had a couple of black eyes, he would have lost his job – since the whole point of his employment is to prevent people like Big Man from getting away!

I do not have a glib answer to these questions.  In a world that is fully ruled by Jesus, generosity and turning the other cheek would be a universal requirement.  And in that case, no one would go hungry, or homeless, or naked; and no one would be throwing punches.  Everyone would make clothes, build houses, grow food, and manufacture useful articles... for free, wouldn’t they?

Of course the Christian vision of a world like this is usually described as coming into being after “Judgement Day” – in effect, after the people who are inclined to hate and steal and hurt have been removed from the community.

Most important, Jesus did not say that loving your neighbour and “turning the other cheek,” only come into play in heaven.  He specified these values as a requirement for us in this world, where bad things and broken, angry people are all around.

I’m not sorry that I called the police.  I’m glad that, through the efforts of several people, no one got seriously hurt, and a violent man was taken away in handcuffs.  But I also recognize that at no point was there any sympathetic examination of why Big Man had chosen to live this way in the first place – there was neither time nor opportunity to explore whether or not he had abuse and sorrow and addiction and poverty and violence in his childhood.  There probably were some, or even all, of these things; but I also believe that it is better for our community as a whole, that we make provision to learn about him safely, when he is in jail, and where we can try to help him make sense of his life, and to choose a gentler and more positive path forward.

And for my own part, I want to try daily to be generous and turn the other cheek.  And all the other values so commonly described as being “Christian.”  If I had come upon him earlier, in the store, I would have bought the Big Man his bacon.  But I was too late for that, and once he was punching and trying to hurt the Loss Prevention Officer, I suppose it was best to call 911.

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1  I later learned that security guards are not permitted to initiate violence.  The slim lady was familiar with this rule, and was offering to, in effect, “frame” the Loss Prevention Officer.
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2  All the words of Jesus quoted in these paragraphs are from the Sermon on the Mount, and may be found in Matthew 5, verses 38 to 42.
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