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56 seconds that altered an officer’s life forever Fitzroy Harbour’s Syd Gravel documents his shooting an unarmed suspect

Derek Dunn

EMC news – Const. Silvio “Syd� Gravel, then 34, was on patrol with a new recruit in Ottawa’s Ledbury-Heron Gate area early one morning some 25 years ago. The radio crackled and the familiar voice of the dispatcher cut through the darkness. It’s a 10/42, meaning an armed robbery. Nothing more is said regarding the type of weapon involved. Gun? Knife? Baseball bat? Police on the street that morning would have no idea. It is one of the many changes that would occur as a result of the deadly events that followed. On one level it didn’t matter. Police went into every situation assuming the worst. That was their best form of protection. Assume it was a gun. Let the icy facts lower the intensity, as they say. Seconds after the call a car comes flying over the railroad tracks ahead, sparks spinning off like fireworks. All four wheels skid onto a major artery. Gravel asks dispatch for a description of the car and turns on the lights and siren. If nothing else these clowns will face reckless driving charges. Turns out it’s a match with the getaway car. Gravel looks over at the new recruit, and pronounces in no uncertain terms that situation is grave. The car pulls over just as dispatch begins to describe the suspects. The driver gets out and walks toward Gravel’s patrol car. He hears the description and races back to the getaway car and speeds off. Gravel is in pursuit and watches as the car crosses through two yards, hits two cars along the way, bursts through a fence, and finally comes to a halt after slamming into a third car. The passenger, a troubled young man mixed up in drugs and let out recently after serving a spell for another armed robbery, climbs out of the car. His final few seconds on the planet are spent shirtless, on top of crumpled car. “Show your hands,� Gravel shouts over and over again, one hand on the handle of his gun. “Show your hands.� The suspect was facing away from Gravel, but turned slightly toward him and reached into his pants near the

Derek Dunn

Syd Gravel admires the garden and fish pond through the window of his Fitzroy Harbour home. These days he is under considerably less stress then when he worked the streets of Ottawa as a cop. Gravel shares one particularly traumatic experience in his book 56 Seconds. crotch area. Gravel pulled the trigger and he went down. Meanwhile, the driver was screaming his head off. Someone walking a dog at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m. entered the scene. The world started working its fingers around Gravel’s head. The passenger got up again. Because he shot from the hip, Gravel figured he’d missed the passenger. The young man dropped again, ensuring he would never meet the son growing in his girlfriend’s belly. Gravel was busy ordering the driver onto the ground, the dog walker to back off, the lady in the housecoat on her front porch asking ‘What’s going on?’ to get back inside. But then cops seemed to appear out of nowhere and fill the location with flashing lights and security. A few more seconds passed before it was time to pull the hand out of the dead man’s pants. Apparently he had money shoved down there, maybe wanted to get rid of it.

There was no gun. No knife. No baseball bat. Nothing that spoke ‘armed robbery.’ “I just shot somebody that has no gun,� Gravel said in the comforts of his Fitzroy Harbour home, a quarter of a century later. The effects of that moment still haunt him from time to time. He still has trouble making decisions every once in a while, for instance. This, to a 31-year veteran who retired four years ago, who rose to the rank of staff sergeant, who has been recognized with several national and international awards, and who has been a keynote speaker and guest lecture on the topic of police trauma. Gravel asked that the victim’s name not be published. “He was from a good family who still has connections in the area,� he said. The victim’s father even approached Gravel at one point, asked if he was okay. 56 SECONDS

When he tells the story his

audience is often surprised to learn that it all happened in just 56 seconds. Hence the name of his soon to be published 70-page book on the topic, which goes far beyond the incident to details of symptoms to look for in a cop suffering from post traumatic stress, coping mechanisms and more. The event is included in the book as a means of building credibility with officers who’ve had a similar experience. He explained, with some bitterness, that it took six years for the experts to examine the case and have all their questions answered. He would like the situation to be reversed, where they had 56 seconds to study the incident and he had six years to decide whether or not to shoot. “It must be a pretty complex decision if it takes six years to get all their questions answered,� he said. Along with dispatchers now expected to provide details on weapons used in armed robberies, the prevalent attitude

that said cops should spend the next night at a bar then get on with the job is a thing of the past. “The idea that you can buck up and take the heat; that’s the job, just do it; all of a sudden becomes a lot harder,� he said. “You’ve gotta talk about it.� Cops are trained to be pro-

Syd Gravel’s book, complete with symptoms to spot and coping mechanisms is available this fall.

fessionals, to examine facts, to think analytical. They are not trained to share their emotions. Which is why there was some hesitation when Gravel was quietly approached by another officer soon after the incident, one who he would later learn was involved in another shooting, and asked if everything was all right; if he was drinking a little more; if he needed someone to chat with. Gravel said everything was fine. But it wasn’t, and he knew it. That’s when a Dr. Pierre Turgeon from the University of Ottawa recruited him and other police offices involved in traumatic shootings. The group would meet to share their experiences. They would soon form Robin’s Blue Circle – a post-shooting trauma team that assists officers in working their way through the trauma of death or near-death work related incidents. Gravel has assisted over 40 officers survive near-death incidents over a 12-year period. Writing the book hasn’t been easy on Gravel. He is forced to relay the experience over and over again. But he feels strongly that if other officers can hand a copy of his book over to family and friends and say, ‘Here, this is what I’m going through’ it could help strengthen relations. And that would make it worth the cost, he said. The self-published 56 Seconds will be available this autumn. For more information, log onto  A SECOND BOOK

Gravel is also working on a second book. ‘Workplace Diversity: How to get it right’ is not about the altruistic aspirations of multiculturalism. It lays out how his award-winning recruitment program at the Ottawa Police Service can be translated to the private sector. It is a pragmatic strategy that ends with concrete results. Gravel said if a company digs through its existing work force to find elements of diversity, it can then focus on bringing in missing elements. In the end, he said, it’s about meeting customer expectations. Which will translate into success, he said.

West Carleton Review EMC  
West Carleton Review EMC  

July 19, 2012