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John Downs Headshot

Taking This Picture Got Me Arrested

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My left cheek is against the cold sidewalk. My chin is burning after being scraped along the concrete. A knee is digging into my back. My right arm is pinned under my chest. With firm direction, the officer tells me to, "Stop resisting!" -- as if I have any choice regarding my limb's position. I know exactly how to conduct myself, having witnessed it so many times before.

January 18, 2013, was a Friday. The girlfriend and I decided to reward ourselves after a long week with dinner out. Afterward, around midnight, we made our way to a friend's condo at King and Bathurst. We stayed for nearly two hours, chatting and sipping drinks. Just after, 2 a.m., we said our goodbyes and headed out to catch the eastbound King streetcar home.

As usual, traffic through the King Street club district was slow. As we rumbled past Brant Street, I noticed the lights of an ambulance, then a young man lying on the street with blood covering the pavement beside him.

Whenever I witness a scene like that -- the sight of police-tape blocking off an intersection, cops with guns drawn or smoke billowing from the sky above me -- the reporter part of my brain takes over. Usually, the excitement is short-lived and I find myself heading home soon after checking out the scene. But not knowing whether I could have called a fire or homicide into the newsroom will haunt me if don't check things out.

So I rang the bell on the streetcar, told the girlfriend I'd see her at home soon and gave her a quick kiss goodbye.

As I waited for the streetcar to stop, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and switched it into camera mode. When the rear doors opened, I pounced onto the street and jogged a back to the scene, where by now the injured young man was being loaded into an ambulance.

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I quickly snapped two photos of the blood on the ground. A Toronto fireman, apparently unhappy with my actions, approached me. I assured him I was not interfering with the scene and took a third photo. When he instructed me to get lost I mentioned that I work in media. He either didn't believe me, or didn't care. His response: "You want me to get the cops over here?" That sounded fine to me. After all, I'd just explain to the police who I was, show them my ID, and assure them I had no intention of hampering their investigation. But after agreeing to hash things out with the officers, my phone was swiped from my hand, landing on the sidewalk below.

As I reached down to pick it up, I heard the fire officer: "Police! Here! This guy!" My phone was just out of my grasp when I was grabbed by my shoulders and thrown face first on to the sidewalk. My left arm was held behind my back; my right armed was pinned under my chest. I tried to comply with the officer's demands of, "Do not resist," but his right knee was digging into the small of my back, making it impossible to free my wrist.

What happened next took place so quickly it's difficult to recall in what order they transpired. I recall handcuffs -- real handcuffs -- tightly constricting my wrists. An officer dug through my pockets and pulled out all possible evidence. I remember being most concerned about my Metropass going missing, as we were barely midway through the month. I was escorted to a police car and carefully placed in the rear seat. I was OK. I wasn't worried. I knew I had not done anything wrong.

As the firefighters and cops gathered, I recognized one of them from my reporting days. I asked a nearby officer to bring the familiar face over and, to my surprise, he obliged. Moments later, the door to the car opened.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I can't remember your name. I'm John Downs."

"John! Jeff Zammit. What are you doing here?" A wave of relief washed over me. I had interviewed and scrummed Zammit on many occasions. I had never had a negative experience involving him and, in fact, had always looked forward to working with him when I got the chance.

As to his question?

"I don't know." I told him I was taking pictures of the scene when everything went haywire. It was perhaps at this point that he asked whether I had been drinking. I told him I had just left a friend's house where, yes, we had some drinks. He assured me he'd look into what was going on and return with an update. He joined the huddle of police and fire officers for a moment and then headed back in my direction. He looked at me and waved a slow uppercut through the air with his right hand.

"He says you took a swing at him," he said, in reference to the firefighter.

That was the turning point. The fire officer was claiming I attempted to assault him. An accusation that I knew could get me thrown in the Don Jail. An accusation I knew to be completely fabricated. I was in disbelief.

"That's what he's saying?"

Zammit nodded. I assured him I would never have done such a thing. I could tell he didn't need much convincing.

Within a few minutes, I was on my way to 14 Division, with Zammit in the passenger seat. It had been a while since we had run into each other, so we caught up during the leisurely drive. I also made it clear to Zammit that this whole experience would make for great fodder on my radio show come Monday. I did not mean it as a threat. I was just giving him the heads-up.

The cruiser pulled into an underground lot and I was escorted out of the vehicle into the booking room. An officer announced I had been arrested for assault and brought to the station because I was intoxicated.

I surrendered my belongings and then was led into a hallway and given an opportunity to call my girlfriend. I told her I was in jail and assured her I'd be released soon enough. After hanging up, I was brought into an interview room.

I waited for about 30 minutes, until Zammit returned with another officer who I believe was identified to me as a detective. Once again I explained that the only reason I was at the scene was to find out what had happened and to take some pictures.

The two asked whether they could see the photos and I agreed happily. They handed me my phone and I flipped through the shots from the scene. The two convened quietly and then Zammit explained I'd be held for public intoxication.

I was allowed another phone call to the girlfriend to let her know that I would be released into her custody at 7 a.m., in approximately three hours.

Zammit apologetically let me know they'd have to place me in a cell for the duration of my stay and my belt and shoelaces would have to come off. While inconvenienced, I was still chalking this up to an educational experience. And, frankly, it wasn't that bad. I had already been given a grape cocktail in a juice box to help my dehydration. My private jail cell was immaculate, and came with its own stainless-steel toilet with a built-in drinking fountain. Not long into my stay, I was also offered a roast beef sandwich. It was not good.

I crafted myself a makeshift pillow on the concrete bed-like platform out of my hoodie and sneakers. I was hoping the hood would cover my face and block out some of the light to allow me to sleep. No luck. At one point, a polite officer checked in and offered a second grape cocktail. I took it.

Time moved slowly. As the hours passed, my body -- and especially my knees, bruised from the takedown -- began to notice the platform wasn't designed for a good night's sleep. When my eyes weren't closed I stared at the walls and ceiling of the cell and wondered where a person could hang himself if he did have shoelaces or a belt.

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As the limited distractions in the cell grew less interesting, my mind began to wonder: How the hell did I end up in jail? A radio reporter for 11 years in Toronto -- no stranger to covering police news -- I had suddenly become the story. Although police don't always like falling under the scrutiny of the media, for all intents and purposes they have always been my ally. The relationship has occasionally fallen into the dysfunctional, but by no means did I expect to one day be making an interview request with the Chief to discuss the reasons for my arrest.

In my mind, three hours had passed. Maybe even four. On the next visit from a guard I asked what time it was. He said it was after 9 a.m. - two hours after my supposed release time. Had my girlfriend not shown up to spring me from jail? The officer told me he'd look into it. And so I continued to wait.

About an hour later the door opened. I was told it was time to go home. It was with mixed feelings that I made my way back into the booking room. The girlfriend hadn't heard the whole story and was destined to be exhausted and angry. But she was nowhere to be seen.

"These officers will be taking you home," I was told by a man on the other side of the counter. I appreciated the unexpected chauffeur service -- as far as I knew cops didn't drive criminals home -- but where was my girlfriend?

"She's gone home," was the reply. "She was here earlier." I still had so many questions but I was also in a hurry to get out of there. I grabbed the plastic bag of my personal contents and hopped into the back of a cruiser. I quickly identified two problems. 1) My phone was dead. 2) My house keys were not in the bag. I mentioned this to the officers in front, but they didn't seem too interested.

As we pulled up to my house, I spotted a Post-it note on the front door: "Call me," it read. Before I had a chance to point it out to the officers, they had rolled away. And so there I stood, with no house key, laceless sneakers and a phone with a dead battery.

About four hours earlier, my girlfriend had indeed arrived at 14 Division for my release. The process was taking longer than she had expected, so she lay down on a bench and attempted to rest. Her ears perked up when she heard the sounds of a man being released, but she could tell he had been imbibing far more than her boyfriend the evening before. She listened to him struggle to put on his jacket. He claimed it wasn't his, and was far too large. Then she heard another voice say, "It says Downs. It's yours." At this she opened her eyes and saw a guy who sort of looked like me stumbling and repeatedly dropping a smartphone on the floor. As she stared in confusion, through tired eyes and glasses with an old prescription, she saw the officer hustle the man out of the station.

A moment later, an officer approached from the other side of the glass.

"You were waiting for Downs?" he asked.

"Yes," she said.

"John Downs?"

"Uh huh."

"That was him," the officer said with certainty.

"No it wasn't," she responded with certainty.

"John Downs? The radio host?"

"Yes."

"That was him."

Perplexed and beginning to question her sanity, Domini pulled out her phone and flipped to a recent photo. It was enough confirmation for the officer.

"Yup. That was him."

So why I hadn't I walked over to her, Domini demanded to know. I was probably still too drunk to notice her -- or too ashamed -- the officer offered.

Domini made her way back home, confused. She was angry at the officer and angry with me since I had, apparently, walked right past her. But as the hours past and I didn't turn up at the house, she grew increasingly concerned. If that was indeed me she had seen leaving the station, something had left me more impaired than when I last saw her.

She called a neighbour for vehicular back up. They cruised the streets near 14 Division, scouring parks, diners and bus shelters. They didn't find me. Domini insisted they return to the station.

But they didn't see me there, either. Just as she was about to leave, a young police officer poked his head through the door. "Are you looking for Downs? We just dropped him off at home."

She left, flabbergasted. A short while later her phone rang. It was me. I was back at Sam's condo.

It was over the next few days and weeks that I realized just how many things had gone wrong within the Toronto Police Service on that evening. It also made me realize that if I hadn't been a news reporter who knew Jeff Zammit, my experience could have turned out far worse.

This blog originally appeared on the Newstalk 1010 website.

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