Councillor Josh Matlow

Tragic death brings divided city together

Josh Matlow’s City Hall Diary, Toronto Star

To suggest that the Toronto Police Service has had a challenging year is an understatement.

Between serious questions left unanswered surrounding its actions during the G20 and its recent request of City Hall for a substantial increase to it’s nearly $billion budget, our police suddenly replaced the TTC as Toronto’s punching bag de jour.

I’ve observed some members of city council and the public debate police actions with narrow and populist rhetoric — some suggesting the police can do no wrong while others finding every opportunity to gratuitously bash them. And far too often, the police are described as a homogeneous entity, not what they truly are, both a service and a diverse group of people. Many of us have family members, friends or neighbours who are “the police.”

As a new city councillor, I recently met with the police officers that serve the residents of my midtown ward.

At 53 Division near Yonge and Eglinton, Staff Insp. Larry Sinclair and his colleagues were gracious hosts. We enjoyed coffee and doughnuts together (of course), and discussed everything from how best to respond to traffic concerns to crime statistics, and I learned a lot about the work they do to keep our neighbourhoods safe. We also discussed how important it is that police officers show empathy to each resident who contacts them for help.

That weekend I returned to 53 Division to visit their community open house. Dozens of local residents met their police, toured the station and had photos taken with old-fashioned police cars. Their children waited excitedly to pet the horses.

And then, only a few days later, Torontonians awoke to a tragedy. Sgt. Ryan Russell, an 11-year veteran of the police force, had been killed in the line of duty.

I remember reading that he was 35 years old and married with a young child. Being 35 years old myself and recently married, I was personally touched by this loss and paused to appreciate the people in my life whom I love.

I then joined thousands of people, including first responders and police officers from across North America, at the convention centre for a public funeral to commemorate our fallen hero and to support his family. I saw city councillors who only days before had been arguing with each other sit side-by-side in respectful silence.

It was Sgt. Russell’s widow, Christine, who, more than anyone, inspired the room with her courage and words. She told us, “It is because of you that I can stand here today.” The public’s outpouring of support, condolences and love had clearly meant so much to her. My eyes welled with tears throughout the service.

Sgt. Russell was not simply “the police”; he was a husband, father, and friend. And although there’s been a lot of attention paid to how Toronto is a city divided, sometimes it does take a tragedy to unite a family. In response to Sgt. Russell’s tragic death, we came together as one city to express our condolences and gratitude to him, his family and to all those who serve and protect us.

Josh Matlow is the new councillor for Ward 22, St. Paul’s.


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