A Black man, a fatal police shooting, and a widow who didn’t back down: The 1979 case that electrified the city and launched a movement

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On a hot Sunday, August 26, 1979, around noon, two Metro Toronto police officers kicked at the back door of a red brick semi-detached family home in Toronto’s Christie Pitts neighborhood. The bolted door frame of this concrete, two-story house was shattered, leading to the kitchen, where 35-year-old black homeowner Albert Johnson enraged his wife, Lemona, for telling police that the police had returned and were torturing her again. Has been doing. Minutes later, Johnson was shot by police in front of his seven-year-old daughter and bloodied on the hallway floor. In the background, television broadcast the religious program on Sunday morning.

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The entire conversation, at which time police radioed Johnson’s address for his shooting, lasted 13 minutes. A few hours later, Johnson died of internal bleeding from a gunshot wound in the hospital.

Police claimed they were responding to an anonymous call that Johnson was acting “abusive and disorderly” in the shared street behind their home, forcing them to enter the home for fear of the family’s safety. Lemona Johnson denied any security concerns on Sunday, arguing instead that police had been harassing her husband since May, when a bloody encounter with a half-dozen 14 Division police officers hospitalized him for several days. Got it done


More than 40 years later, I was surprised to read that news reports following Johnson’s death suggest that he began a racism complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) against Metro Toronto police about that violent incident in May Will be As a senior human rights lawyer in Ontario, it felt real that someone attempted to directly challenge police authority four decades ago, especially given that we experienced the turbulent heat of the brutal death of George Floyd which inspired a global protest against anti-black racism. and police brutality.

In the summer of Floyd’s murder, the OHRC released “A Disparate Impact,” a massive and disturbing interim report produced as part of its racial profiling investigation into Toronto police. That interim report described how black people are brutally and unfairly controlled in Toronto. its final report four years The racial profiling investigation is expected to come out this December. Among several disturbing discoveries, the OHRC investigation found that a black man was nearly 20 times more likely than a white man to be the victim of a fatal shooting by Toronto police.

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I wondered whether Johnson represented an early example of this horrifying statistic or if his pursuit of a human rights complaint was, in any way, connected to the shooting of him. The query created a deep gulf in historical events, legal documents, and newspaper reporting at the time, to triangulate the horrifying truth that Metro Toronto police had about Johnson’s racism complaint four days before his death. Knew.

Community Advocacy and Policing

Johnson’s tragic death was a flashpoint in the struggle of black communities for racial justice in Toronto, and his powerful story continues to this day with racial communities demanding police reform.

In the mid-1970s, after immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa, India and Pakistan settled in the Toronto area, anti-immigrant sentiments and tensions surfaced. Vocalizing growing concerns about police mistreatment of immigrants, ethnic communities have turned to the OHRC to act as a conduit in their weakened relationship with the police.

The OHRC is an arm’s length government agency acting as the public interest custodian of human rights in the province. From 1962 to 2007, the OHRC is where people went to complain about discrimination or harassment in employment, housing or services. In the 1970s, the OHRC did not expand its investigative and enforcement powers, in other words its jurisdiction, to extend to police services. However, since many people were afraid to complain directly to the police about misbehavior, the OHRC became Actually Repository of public complaints regarding intake office and police misconduct.

This includes listening to the public’s stories about problematic police interactions, drafting their concerns into statements of charges, referring these complaints to the Metro Toronto Police Civil Complaints Bureau for investigation, and monitoring the outcome of those internal police investigations. Was.

Records from 1977–79 showed that the OHRC was actively working with ethnic communities to document discrimination by the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force (now known as the Toronto Police Service). In 1977–78, the OHRC identified a clear trend in alleged police harassment: 72 percent of the complainants were black. The OHRC also observed a new phenomenon of police failure to serve victims of hate attacks and vandalism: 93 percent of complainants of such alleged police inaction were South Asians.

Just before Albert Johnson’s death, the media was closely following the investigation into the death of another black man. In August 1978, fears of police targeting black people grew with the death of Andrew “Buddy” Evans, who was fatally shot on the sidewalk by a Toronto constable. Division 14, the area implicated in Evans’ death, was identified as the center of police complaints. Stories suggested widespread racism in Division 14, with locker room signage prominently promoting the arrest of individuals using the N-word and other ethnic adjectives.

With mounting criticism surrounding the start of the Evans coroner’s investigation in the fall of 1978, black activists ramped up their advocacy efforts. The community was critical of the police investigating its own members as self-serving cover-ups because the police themselves continually exonerated officers without issuing detailed findings. The stalled Evans inquiry, trigger-happy racist police accusations and several other deaths involved police communities calling for reform and calling for a Metro Police investigation in 1979. Human rights activists urged Roy McMurtry, who served as both attorney general and solicitor general. To combat police racism and abuse by enacting independent oversight laws.

After months of delay due to a dispute over whether the provincial coroner was impartial enough, the Evans inquiry was resumed for public scrutiny on August 20, 1979. In the week leading up to Johnson’s August 26 death, media across Canada was consumed with Evans inquiries. Questions were raised about police bias and physical abuse, particularly relating to the Metro Police, and the extreme need for public accountability.

Johnson’s human rights complaint

Albert Johnson's widow, Lemona, as well as relatives and friends fled the courtroom after a jury acquitted two police officers on charges of shooting the 35-year-old Jamaican immigrant.

As I read contemporary news reports, I learned that the August 1979 death of Albert Johnson was the culmination of more than three months when he was surrounded by Metro Police. However, at the time, Johnson’s claims of police harassment were regarded as evidence of his mental instability.

It all began on May 12, 1979, when Lemona Johnson, thinking her husband was acting odd, called the local police for support, after recently losing his job.

Two officers came to Johnson’s home to see Lemona’s concerns that Albert would not stop spraying water hoses on his children. Albert resisted his interrogation and reportedly became aggressive. Two additional officers arrived and eventually, six 14 Division officers mobilized, and a violent brawl ensued. Lemona later told how, coming from Jamaica, she didn’t know who to call about Albert’s behavior and wished she had called the doctor.

Some sources suggest that Albert Johnson called the OHRC directly from the hospital after the confrontation. What is certain is that in the three months before his death, Johnson visited the OHRC’s downtown Toronto offices several times to report police brutality and ongoing harassment, and appeared more intimidated by each visit.

OHRC community relations officer Gail Guttentag described Johnson as polite and soft-spoken when it came to documenting his concerns. Now in retirement, Guttentag recalled that Johnson sometimes sang and talked to himself, but he relentlessly and credibly addressed his concerns. Gutentag’s memory of Johnson’s apparent fear of increasing police harassment is “searched deep inside” her and she continues to believe that he was telling the truth.

Johnson told the OHRC about the painful dispute that took place on 12 May. She alleged that the police called her the N-word and “black bastard”, beat her on her bed and slit her wrists and ankles. After being tied to three sets of handcuffs, Johnson was reportedly dragged down the stairs of his home, placed in a police wagon and taken to hospital, where he spent three days. After this incident, Johnson’s blood-stained bed in his house was left unusable. His hospital roommate recalled that he was “in bad shape—on intravenous, with a large bandage wrapped around his head and using a bedpan,” later because he was violently kicked in the groin. Went.

After being hospitalized, Johnson said police followed him, often stopping him for trivial reasons like biking in the wrong direction in his neighborhood, and repeatedly accused of disturbing the peace. In one case, the judge reprimanded police for making charges against Johnson for loudly preaching the Bible in the park. Repeated police interactions added to his distress and hatred of the police. The OHRC had to continually update Johnson’s draft complaint over the summer months because of repeated, horrific police encounters.

In mid-August, less than two weeks before he died, Johnson told OHRC that police continued to harass him. Guttentag wrote in his notes that Johnson’s “greatest fear … was that the police would kill him. He reiterated that he felt the police were trying to kill him, and made a concerted effort to continually harass him.” She was afraid…

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