Why I was arrested and spent a night in jail -- and why it could also happen to you

Posted By: John Downs · 10/28/2013 7:00:00 PM

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.

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 okay. 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.

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?"


"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 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.

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  1. MS posted on 10/28/2013 07:41 PM
    Wow. Incompetence at it's best.

    Bravo TPS. Bravo!
    1. A guy posted on 10/28/2013 10:31 PM
      @MS Lets be completely clear here; this wasn't incompetence, this was abject maliciousness. The officer made up a story about John assaulting him. That alone could have utterly derailed his life, had he been somebody else.
    2. Jim Dandy posted on 10/29/2013 10:31 AM
      @MS So, with one side of the story, you are convinced. Come on - he's a journalist, same as Duffy, Pamela et all. Let's hope 1010 has the guts to fire him when the full story comes out. Also, John, cut back on the bar scene a bit. You are not going to become a Senator in any event.
  2. Carl O posted on 10/28/2013 07:45 PM
    Yet another example of what I feel is the fact that the police are out of control. They are no longer there to serve or protect. They believe that they a free to do anything they want and are not accountable to anyone. And I think that, as in any organization, you have to place the blame on the leadership, right in Blair's lap as well as they police boards which are totally useless, rubber stamping anything the police chief's tell them to do.. I feel the problem is that they select the wrong people and they don't train them adequately and on top of that the final indignity is that they are grossly overpaid.
  3. Ray posted on 10/28/2013 07:45 PM
    Just another story of Toronto's finest doing what they do.

    What a bad situation. I hate to say it, but it would have been 100% worse of you were a minority. Punches, kicks, verbal abuse, etc.

    The majority of people in authority are drunk with power.
  4. Carl O posted on 10/28/2013 07:55 PM
    I'm you. A REAL newsman would have released the story immediately. I think you lost sight of what news is and put your personal state above that. Not surprised though, because you are in "radio journalism."
    1. Brandon H posted on 10/29/2013 01:06 PM
      @Carl O Or he wanted to wait for the issue to make its way through the system first, to the point where the investigation was started, and then bring it up. I dunno, that sounds like a good idea to me.
  5. Bob posted on 10/28/2013 08:02 PM
    Question. If the crown threw out the assault charges, what happened to the firefighter who made the accusations?

    He should be held accountable.
  6. Jada posted on 10/28/2013 08:10 PM
    I can't believe that guy who called in to accuse you of over acting because you were the media. I don't care how much anyone dislike you John, these is no excuse for what was done to you.

    The cops seem to think that they are some superhuman and people should be treat like dirt whenever they choose. I do not trust them and most people I know do not trust them. I hate to paint them all with the same brush, but i have yet to meet a cop that treated anyone with respect.

    Just say you thank God you are not black, you might have been a dead man today.
    1. Carl O posted on 10/28/2013 08:27 PM
      @Jada Why do blacks always think they are the only people who are badly treated? Too much naval gazing.
    2. Jim Dandy posted on 10/29/2013 10:42 AM
      @Jada Wow! You know 'what was done to [him]' Good thing you were there or seen the independent footage because you are clearly too clever to take the word of a journalist. Duffy and Pamela thank you also.
  7. Jim007 posted on 10/28/2013 09:14 PM
    Interesting! I know someone that was accused of being intoxicated by a firefighter at that exact location. That person was also arrested for intoxication. You have my email fee free to contact me/ I'm curious as to who the officers were.
  8. Bill Blair (aka Chief Wiggum) posted on 10/28/2013 10:47 PM
    I'm not sure what's more infuriating: the paranoid accusations of the hose pumper, or the reporter's gutless withholding of said accuser's name.

    Mr. Downs should do his part to help ensure this doesn't recur, and disclose the name of the water squirter who made the false accusation.
    1. sam posted on 10/29/2013 10:33 PM
      @Bill Blair (aka Chief Wiggum) I agree. With more and more video proof that police are liars it makes you wonder how many people are victims of fabricated charges. John should charge the roofer/part time squirter and the cop.
  9. Skeptical posted on 10/29/2013 12:12 AM
    Let me be the voice of reason here. I'm not defending the TPS even though I do feel that they get a bad rap, and do a lot of good things which aren't newsworthy in this city, as it is fashionable to be anti-police. So, Downsie was stumbling around a crime scene drunk, getting in the way, was told to leave by an emergency service worker, ignored that, possibly swung at him (we should believe you, admittedly intoxicated over a firefighter), was arrested, were so intoxicated that you were thrown in the drunk tank, and we should believe YOU over everyone else. Never mind that this was such a travesty of justice that you wait nearly a year to report it. Sounds more like someone who is looking for some limelight to me. Maybe you should've stayed on the streetcar since you were intoxicated.
    1. Greg posted on 10/29/2013 02:13 PM
      @Skeptical So taking the word of the police and firefighter without question and adding hyperbole to the story is being the "voice of reason"?
      I guess you could testify about this since you were obviously there as you describe the scene as only someone who was present could.
  10. Christian posted on 10/29/2013 12:49 AM
    Why did he wait a year, that's what I can't understand.
    Why did he not call the station's legal department from the police department? That is standard practice in News
    1. Jim Dandy posted on 10/29/2013 10:44 AM
      @Christian Not when you are drunk!
  11. ctwr9-11 posted on 10/29/2013 01:24 AM
    While I have rarely agreed with John Downs' viewpoint, I do believe his account of what happened with Toronto Police. Strangely similar stories of brutality & false arrest have been widely documented in the news without any accountability from the officers involved. I have even heard & witnessed arrests of innocent people I know personally. While I have always been a law abiding citizen, I too have been bullied & harassed by Toronto Police, who re-victimized me after I was violently assaulted, without provocation at my apt building by my slumlords on 2 separate occasions.

    These new owners had already wrongly evicted half a dozen good tenants and when I refused to leave, they tried evicting me without grounds. When I won that they started their intimidation tactics. I believe their motives were to flip our old low rise for huge profit, turning it into a well appointed high rise building. On both occasions when I called the police, they interviewed my Romanian attackers whose partners falsely claimed to have witnessed me attacking them ~ blatant lies. I called the police every day for the next 5 days without any officers ever being dispatched.

    When I finally documented & began healing from my injuries, I drove to the station to file a formal complaint. The officers basically ignored me for an hour, but when I finally had the chance to speak to an officer, my slumlords entered the precinct to file more false charges against me. When I then tried to show them photos of my injuries & the written eviction decision in my favour, one of the female supervisors stepped toward me at the front desk, drew her weapon, pointed it directly at me and screamed "Step back or I will have to charge you with obstruction!!" I was in total shock but immediately complied because I was sure she was going to shoot me!! None of the other officers even flinched. Despite never having resolved the assaults, I decided to leave, to never trust another Toronto cop, nor set foot in those toxic premises again. I came to the unsettling realization that if police could treat me so abusively after I was already victimized & violated by real criminals who had a key to my apartment, then this kind of bullying can probably happen to ANYBODY.

    I hope you "name names" John and get that bad cop & firefighter charged. I believe we are living in a police state which will only get worse, if citizens remain silent out of fear & intimidation by cops who only serve & protect each other.
    1. Blix Nood posted on 10/29/2013 05:05 AM
      @ctwr9-11 Why don't you name names and tell us who the slumlords are and what building they own(ed).
  12. driver posted on 10/29/2013 07:47 AM
    The Toronto Police have felt empowered to do as they please, particularly since the Harper Cons emboldened them for the G20.

    They have been taught to not listen to anyone's explanation as to who, what, where, when, why, and to just 'round them up and let the courts settle it' mandate that was issued.

    There's lots to add but time is of essence.

    Bottom line is JD could have been treated a lot worse if he wasn't recognized by one officer as a Reporter and wasn't white.

    Oh and a big PS I thought of last night as I listened;

    Next time you are off work and see something rather routine going on, call the office.

    You need develop 'work-life balance'.

    Blood on the streets downtown is a multiple occurrence any weekend and is basically a shrug my shoulders story that I don't even read about..........
  13. tony posted on 10/29/2013 08:42 AM
    this sounds familiar, many before you have complained about the same treatment, now that you have experienced it first hand, be aware of how you go about treating this story...
  14. AV posted on 10/29/2013 08:48 AM
    Get some of the camera footage from the clubs in the area, then sue the $hit out of TPS and TFD for false claims and assault. Blow it wide open and wait for them to cut you a fat cheque for their maliciousness.
  15. Shane posted on 10/29/2013 08:49 AM
    I don't get it. You interfered with a fireman helping someone. You were hammered. What's your deal? You even stated..."it's okay....I'm media". You do realize that every citizen is entitled to film emergancy workers if they believe the is injustice. So being "media" means nothing. Being drunk does though. I like where you say you "wondered where a person could hang himself if he did have shoelaces or a belt". Wow. Man up. Be an adult and don't interfere with police while intoxicated.
    1. MS posted on 10/29/2013 10:05 AM
      @Shane Did you even read the story??? John was clear.

      "..Where by now the injured young man was being loaded into an ambulance."

      So, he wasn't interfering with EMS helping someone.
  16. Jen posted on 10/29/2013 08:51 AM
    If the police could fabricate a story, maybe all of them should take a lie detector test in court to back up their statements before the judge will admit the statements. If you story is true, I will be losing a lot of faith of the police force - I found this is very disturbing!
  17. Conor D. O'Hare posted on 10/29/2013 08:52 AM
    While I understand Mr. Downs' concern regarding the application of authority by the officer in question, his actions demonstrated extremely poor judgment. After consuming a significant amount of alcohol, why would he see fit to practice his trade? Go home and stay home. I certainly would not attempt to practice law after consuming 8 drinks. And it begs to be asked, why sit on the story for over 9 months? To say he was waiting for the Court case to run its course is disingenuous at best. Methinks the story was going to come to light and hence, his decision to discuss it publicly. More likely, Mr. Downs was embarrased by his poor judgment.
    1. MABS posted on 10/29/2013 09:41 AM
      @Conor D. O'Hare I agree with the author of comment above. Drinker beware, and all of that. No point in poking your nose into a situation where it does not belong when you've had four or five too many, regardless of your "media status" at the time of incident/infraction. You were no hero that night, unfortunately.
  18. Bettie posted on 10/29/2013 08:57 AM
    " .... January 18, 2013, was a Friday. ...." I don't understand the delay. Why wait so long before bringing this up?
    1. johnny posted on 10/29/2013 09:18 AM
      @Bettie It also means he had 8 months to proof read.
  19. Johnny posted on 10/29/2013 09:08 AM
    Does anyone proof read anything anymore? Wow.
  20. Robi posted on 10/29/2013 09:12 AM
    Time to put the TPS under a microscope. This city has gone to long with these well to-do-public servants pretending to act in the best interest of the community. The TPS has to be overhauled and certain individuals need to be retired and or let go. There is a certain underlying cronyism that has festered in the TPS for generations, that needs to be addressed. But how do we do this with desired results? That is the question!
  21. Gayforford posted on 10/29/2013 09:28 AM
    John is a pompous jerk now we have the proof karma is a witch vote for ford
    1. Facepalm posted on 10/29/2013 03:01 PM
      @Gayforford I am ashamed to admit I voted for Ford due to a lack of real competition. The guy's an alcoholic hypocritical retard who lacks the humility required to actually be ashamed of himself.
  22. Sully posted on 10/29/2013 09:46 AM
    Eight or nine drinks in 4 hours??? Hmmm.......
  23. David G. posted on 10/29/2013 09:51 AM
    Fire him! This is a man that can't control his drink. High standards for our hosts show must be upheld. Fire him!
  24. J.S. Etobicoke posted on 10/29/2013 09:58 AM
    Really, I mean really CFRB and Bell Media. What other trash can you sling. Nine months after the fact, no charges, just a fine what is the story here? Just something that you John Downs can fabricate and you can hurl at your dwindling listeners. John Downs, no credibility at all, never had it and never will. What double speak. There is no story here. Must be a slow month in the news business. The amount of time your are dedicating to this self serving pomposity is beyond reprehensible. Stop spinning into your own grave. And Jerry Agar will pander to anything.
  25. Angry Bill posted on 10/29/2013 10:04 AM
    There are decent cops out there. If you look, you can find decent people in almost any organization.

    But, there is definitely a systemic problem with the Toronto cops. What happened to Downs happens almost every day to other people.. The cops are complaining that Downs has a "platform". Maybe they should have thought about Downs' "platform" before railroading him.

    I've been involved with cops before, and believe me, they are not a bastion of efficiency and and justice. You give the average person a badge and a gun, and watch how fast they become full of themselves, and develop an attitude. Like I said earlier, you can find decent people in any organization, so I'm not painting everyone with this same brush. But on average, in most cases, this is what happens. Cops railroad people every day, and most people don't have John Downs' platform with his ability to fight back. THAT's the only thing the cops don't like about this entire situation.. That their tactics are being reported on first hand, and not just by some schmuck in the street.

    And to the people who say Downs was drunk and so deserved whatever the cops did to him, can't wait until you are on the receiving end of this kind of treatment. The public loves to stick their head in the sand and think that just because they're not doing anything wrong, nothing will happen to them. Until it does.

    John Downs would have been there taking pictures whether he'd been drinking or not. He'd have been cuffed even if he'd had no drinks. The thing that gets me about this is, the fabricated story about Downs taking a swing at the firefighter. In any other case, 2 "professionals" fabricating that sort of story between them is enough to convict some poor schmuck in court, who doesn't stand a chance in our dyslexic legal system. It begs the question, just how often does that sort of thing go on? I'm willing to bet a lot more often than you would care to believe. John does need to get this sort of thing out in the open. This sort of thing should be uncovered.
    1. Jim Dandy posted on 10/29/2013 10:52 AM
      @Angry Bill I agree with your statement but have changed 2 words. Still true.
      You give the average person a media pass and a microphone, and watch how fast they become full of themselves, and develop an attitude. Just ask Duffy or Pamela,
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