Toronto van attack: The cop who didn’t shoot

Scott Gilmore: Amidst the chaos and horror, a Toronto police officer calmly faced down the driver. It's a moment we should remember.

(This story has been updated to reflect the number of dead and injured and the name of the officer involved.)

There have been a lot of these. London. Munster. Berlin. Barcelona. Paris. Nice. Stockholm. It’s hard to recall the details of any one specifically or to tell them apart. There’s a van or a car. Often it is rented. The driver steers it into a crowd, killing as many pedestrians as he can. Most end when whoever is behind the wheel is shot or shoots himself.

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Today it was Toronto. But I think this one may stand out in our memory for more than the fact that it happened here, in Canada. It will also be remembered as “The one with the cop—the cop who didn’t shoot.”

MORE: Alleged Toronto van attacker Alek Minassian: Everything we know

The attack on Yonge Street started like all the other recent vehicle rampages. On a sunny spring afternoon, at around 1:30 pm,  a white van leapt the curb and careened down the sidewalk with no warning. As always, the early details were vague and confusing. Five hurt. Then eight hurt. Then there was news of fatalities. Ten are dead and 15 injured. News helicopters are showing bodies on the sidewalk, covered by tarps.

We can only imagine the beginning, the shock of seeing a van hurtle over the sidewalk, the horrible noise and screams. We don’t have to imagine the end, though; most of us have already watched it.

There are at least three videos of the takedown that are circulating on social media and being shown on TV right now. The first begins with the battered van stopped on the sidewalk. A siren is wailing. A police officer, identified on Tuesday as Const. Ken Lam, is standing 30 ft away, behind his car, his gun drawn and with both arms straight he is pointing it at the van. He is in a half crouch. He is yelling.

MORE: The meaning of Yonge: For many Ontarians, the tragedy happened down the street

What was he thinking at that moment? He knew this was the van that had reportedly just mowed down more than two dozen people. He could see the smashed grill. He could see the man behind the wheel. Did he think it was about to explode? Did he expect the driver to jump out shooting? The cop holds his fire.

Then the van door opens. The driver, dressed all in black, steps out and is pointing what appears to be a gun at the officer. He yells something, but you can’t hear it over the siren. The officer stands in the middle of the street. Alone facing a man who is pointing a gun back at him. But the cop doesn’t shoot; he reaches into his car and turns off the siren. Now he can hear the driver.

The camera then zooms in on the suspect. He is facing the cop, standing square, his arms raised. The gun may not be a gun. It is too hard to tell from where the cameraman is. He steps toward the officer. Then he reaches back fast to his hip pocket, pulls his hand back up again, quick-drawing like a gunslinger.

READ: Why the Toronto police officer didn’t shoot 

Suddenly you realize he wants the cop to shoot him. But that is not what is happening. The driver quick-draws a second time. The cop won’t fire.

The officer is yelling. “Get down!” He repeats it again. You can hear the driver now, too. “I have a gun in my pocket!” You can almost hear a hint of frustration. But the lone cop still doesn’t shoot.

The driver keeps pointing whatever is in his hand at the police officer who is carefully circling him to his right. “I have a gun in my pocket!” He starts walking towards the cop. A second video shows this precise moment from an office window high above. The driver keeps advancing, his arm extended. The officer steps backward. But doesn’t shoot.

Then, in a flash, something shifts. The cop takes a step forward. He moves towards the driver for the first time. The man in black hesitates and then steps backward. His determination evaporates. He doesn’t want to die. His hands go up. He throws down the black thing in his hand. The cop keeps coming. He tells him to get down. He doesn’t shoot.

“Put your hands behind your back!” He kneels on the driver, who is laying face down now on the sidewalk. He reaches for his cuffs. Thirty-seven seconds after the driver emerged from his van the attack is over. The cop didn’t shoot.

I am paid to explain things and sound confident doing so. But I honestly don’t know what to make of this terrifying, remarkable moment. A man may have just killed many people. He rushed out of his van, which could have been a bomb. He pointed what looked like a weapon. And yet this police officer did not shoot.

At any point if the cop had fired and killed the suspect, the public, his peers, the press, even the driver himself, everyone would have understood. In fact, we likely would have called him a hero.

What held his finger? Bravery? Training? Compassion? Perhaps we will find out in the days ahead. But whatever it is, it deserves attention.

It is easy to take a life. A quick turn of the steering wheel and 10 people are gone. A small amount of pressure on the trigger, and the suspect is dead. We kill each other out of hate, or fear, or ignorance, or duty. Sadly, we understand this instinct well. This is the dark side of humanity. And rightly, we are mesmerized by the horror of it.

But there is light inside us too. We also possess the instinct to keep each other alive. This part of us can be more difficult to understand. But it deserves our devotion much more than the act of killing does. These moments of humanity are not uncommon, but they are precious. It would be good if we could remember that about Toronto, remember the cop who didn’t shoot.