Tommy Townsend says that MRC Police “traumatized” his children when they pulled him over at gunpoint, forced him to the ground, and “unlawfully” handcuffed him in broad daylight on Riverside Drive Aug. 18.
The public arrest unfolded as his two children, aged six and 11, were left screaming in the vehicle.
For its part, MRC des Collines Police spokesperson Martin Fournel said the officers “did what they had to do,” as they were responding to a call regarding a suspicious man with a weapon roaming around the village. “When the officers first arrived, we don’t know the individual; we don’t know the intention and we have witnesses saying he is carrying a weapon, acting suspiciously and there are two kids in the vehicle with him,” explained Fournel. “What would you do in our place?”
Either way, Townsend said his two daughters have been left “traumatized.”
“They’re terrified. Both my daughters had nightmares last night and I was going from room to room. It affected them way more than I ever thought it would.”
The incident happened around 11:15 a.m. Aug. 18 while Townsend was in Wakefield with a group of fellow firefighters from Low, who were out looking for resident Simeon Wapachee, missing for two days. Townsend, who is an arborist by trade, was wearing an orange safety vest and had several knives on his person — tools that he uses daily for trimming and pruning trees. He said every knife he was carrying was sheathed and he was not acting threatening in any way.
Townsend was showing pictures of Wapachee to passersby, asking if they had seen him in the Wakefield area. One of these people called police and told them that there was a man with a knife wandering around Wakefield.
A few minutes later, Townsend, who was back in his truck, heard the sirens and saw the police lights coming towards him. He pulled over to let them pass, but the situation quickly turned aggressive.
“I pulled over to let them pass and then all of a sudden these guys come flying up [yelling], ‘On the ground!’ guns pointed everywhere, and these two are freaking out,” said Townsend, just minutes after the incident, pulling his two daughters close to him.
“They threw me in the back [of the cruiser] and wouldn’t let me talk or anything until they figured out everything. I was with the Low Fire department, and the [firefighters] were trying to say, ‘What are you doing?’ and [the officers] just told them to stay away.”
During the chaos, Low firefighter Maureen Rice said that she and other members of her department tried to intervene and tell police that Townsend was with them, but she said their pleas were “ignored” by officers.
Rice and other officers were finally able to get Townsend’s two daughters from the truck and brought them into Kaffe 1870 to calm them down. Rice said there was a group of firefighters who were doing “Good Samaritan” work searching for Wapachee and added that they were not on official Low Fire business.
She said that Townsend was not acting threatening in any way whatsoever. Wapachee was later found safe.
“I completely understand protecting public safety, but he wasn’t wielding the knife in public, making threats or anything else,” said Rice. “I’m disappointed in the MRC and wonder what would happen if that was someone with a disability.”
Hairdresser Karla Fredeen was finishing up a consultation with a client at her Alskär studio when she heard the sirens and saw intense police action unfold in front of her shop. She said it was “shocking” to see cops with guns drawn in quiet Wakefield.
“I see the cops have their guns out right away and they rip the guy out of the car, put him on the ground and he had two little girls with him and the poor girls are just freaking out,” said Fredeen.
Kaffe 1870 staffer Christina Stobert sat with Townsend’s kids during the chaos, trying to calm them down. She said they were in a “horrible state of shock.”
“The girls were freaked out and sobbing because their daddy and they had just had a gun pointed at them,” said Stobert.
She said she asked police to help calm the kids down and said the officers were “super responsive and kind” following the incident.
After what witnesses reported as about 20 minutes, Townsend was let go without any charges, but he said he has yet to receive an official apology for the ordeal.
He said he’s angry at how he was treated and worries about his reputation after he was handcuffed at gunpoint in the middle of the village in his Tommy Tree company truck.
He said that cops also misplaced one of his knives and he has yet to get it back.
“I’m shocked that they would actually draw their guns and point it at my truck with my two young children in it before knowing any facts,” said Townsend.
According to MRC des Collines Police spokesperson Martin Fournel, police received a call around 11:15 a.m. Aug. 18 regarding an individual who was “acting suspiciously and carrying a weapon” in the village. Fournel said that, when MRC officers get calls like this, “we have to assume the worst.”
“That’s what we are supposed to do,” Fournel told the Low Down Aug. 22. “They put on the handcuffs and yeah, they did draw the guns. But after that, once everybody was safe, they did a debrief with the individual.” Fournel confirmed that Townsend complied with police orders as soon as he was pulled over, but added that, at the time, the officers were unaware of the level of the threat and, “we’re not going to get to the door and start asking questions,” he added.
“Are we gonna wait till something happens? The answer is no. We’re not going to wait,” said Fournel. “They took the line of action that was public safety first.” Fournel noted that police have been seeing an increase in “psychological distress” calls and that was factored into the police response.
When asked if police will issue an official apology to Townsend and his children, Fournel said he has the right to file an official complaint.
Fournel would not disclose the names of the officers who responded to the call.
The aggressive response has raised eyebrows about the way police approach potential threats and what, if any, de-escalation tactics were used before the guns were drawn.
Professor of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University Dawn Moore told the Low Down that she isn’t surprised at how violent the arrest was, arguing that police are trained as “paramilitary first and peacekeepers second.”
“In a situation like that, as soon as [police] get that call, they are going into war mode and the adrenaline is pumping and they are out to get a bad guy and once you get police in that kind of mentality, it is very difficult to do anything but watch the situation escalate,” said Moore who is a Hills resident.
“All protocols will say the same: you do not pull a weapon unless there is an immediate and imminent threat of danger. Yes, they were told that Tommy potentially had a weapon on his person, but did they see the weapon? Did the children seem upset? Did Tommy seem in any way agitated or aggravated like he was going to hurt somebody because there’s very few people who can go from ‘I’ve got a knife and I’m going to do damage to somebody’ to ‘Hello, officer, I hope I’m not in your way.’”
Moore said there were “signs along the way” that would open the door to tactics that would de-escalate the situation, such as the fact that he pulled over immediately and complied with police orders.
She agreed that, “of course there has to be caution” but “curing a situation and escalating a situation are not the same thing.”
Moore said she worries about how Townsend’s children will be impacted and isn’t surprised to hear that they already have a fear of police. Unless police rebuild their reputation with the public – and the Townsends – that relationship could be fraught forever.