12/02/2013 12:35 EST | Updated 02/02/2014 05:59 EST

'There's a Guy Driving Down Queen Street West, Pointing a Gun at People'

For a second, I thought I dialed the wrong number.

When the 911 dispatcher picked up, I only heard, "Please, fire or ambulance?"

"Umm, police?" I offered, so rattled I misheard please for police.

"What is your emergency?"

"There's a guy driving down Queen Street West, pointing a gun at people."

Indeed, it was a bustling, unusually mild Saturday evening along that sweet constellation of coffee shops and craft stores that is Queen West.

My girlfriend and I were carting home our first Christmas tree.

A sour-faced officer had just passed us, riding a magnificent white horse. We scoffed. She looked too grumpy to be riding a fairy tale.

People were taking pictures of the sky, as it drew rose-mottled curtains over the sinking sun.

The season's first snowfall was melting beneath our feet.

And so too, that halcyon winter evening, as the sound of a man yelling erupted from the street.

He was in a spotless Volkswagen Jetta, braying at oncoming drivers -- with the black barrel of a handgun resting on the driver's side window.

I couldn't quite make out the faces of the drivers who took turns, with rather acute discomfort, as his target.

The man with the gun snorted gleefully, as he cruised ever so slowly down the stretch -- following a streetcar's stop-and-go route.

Call 911.

Traffic was moving so slowly that we managed to remain nearly alongside the man on foot.

Another moment, and it would be our turn to step into his line of sight.

"I don't want to walk past him," my girlfriend said.

"I'm gonna make a call," I said, as we stopped on the sidewalk.

Is it strange that I hesitated? After all, over the last year or so, the city has been wracked with senseless, random public shootings -- the Eaton Centre tragedy that claimed two lives, a east-end street party that ended in a deadly hail of bullets.

So a grinning idiot was waving a gun at holiday crowds on one of the city's busiest thoroughfares.

Call 911.

But what about that newly released police video showing Toronto cops responding to a call about a man who had escaped a mental care facility?

In early 2012, at least eight officers descended on Michael Eligon, who was wearing nothing but a hospital gown, slippers -- with a pair of scissors in each hand.

He was shot dead.

"We're not psychiatrists," Const. Scott Walker noted last week at an inquiry into his death.

And of course, there were the eight police bullets that ended 18-year-old Sammy Yatim's life over the summer.

Now, there is a man pointing a gun at people from his car.

Yes, call 911.

I was still on the phone with the operator -- she was brisk, detail-oriented and very, very earnest -- when I saw the flashing lights ahead.

The man with the gun had pulled over of his own accord, apparently, to stretch his feet, spit and leer at passersby.

He had just gotten back into his car when the police cruiser -- coming from the opposite direction -- jutted in front of the streetcar.

A pair of officers, stepped out purposefully, eyes fixed on the white Jetta.

"I want to see this," I told my girlfriend, crossing the street for a better view.

I had a bad feeling.

"Out of the car! On the ground!" a cop yelled, gun drawn "On the ground NOW!"

The wail of more cruisers coming from behind.

More police -- yellow-jacketed bicycle cops too -- all swarming towards that epicentre, guns bristling.

Queen St. West was transfixed. From passengers aboard the halted streetcar to people on the street, all eyes seemed to be not so much on the driver of the white Jetta -- as the officers racing toward him.

How would this end? People were already fishing for their cameras.

The man at the centre of it all -- a burly fellow in a black baseball cap -- well, he complied.

In a moment, he was flat on his stomach, a burly police officer pressing down on his back.

On his way to the back of the police cruiser, the Jetta driver locked eyes with a woman standing on the sidewalk.

"Where's your mother?" he growled.

"She's dead," she returned.

"Fuck you bitch."

Back at the Jetta, a latex-gloved cop rummaged in the passenger seat for a moment. He recovered a gun.

Or, at least, it looked exactly like a gun. Instead, it was a perfect replica. Slick, solid and scary.

"There was nothing to give away as fake," an officer told me on the scene. "I see something like that, I shoot... unless it's a super-soaker."

But he didn't. In fact, from the 911 dispatcher to those first officers to respond, I couldn't have imagined the system -- the men and women who worked in it -- could function so perfectly.

From the moment I called to the instant the driver was pressed to the ground, no more than ten minutes had elapsed.

We piled in the back of a police cruiser to give a statement at the station. Fake gun or not, the case fell under major crimes unit.

Once there, a pair of detectives were just as professional and thorough, shaking our hands, giving us their phone number, offering us a ride home.

And I couldn't help repeating what I had said to officers on the scene.

"That was a fantastic response."

I was a little uneasy about giving my full name for the video report, which would be used against the suspect -- and be publicly available.

They didn't tell us that at the scene of the arrest.

But, despite the drivers and pedestrians menaced that early winter evening, I was the sole complainant.

Would it be just catch-and-release for the bully who terrorized strangers on a Saturday night in downtown Toronto?

I did my part, letting detectives videotape my statement.

"You guys really did do a great job," I said, again.

The detective smiled and said, "Spread the word."


Sammy Yatim