On a warm Sunday, around midday on Aug. 26, 1979, two Metro Toronto Police officers kicked in the back door to a red brick semi-detached family home in Toronto’s Christie Pits neighbourhood. The bolted door frame of this solid, two-storey home was shattered, giving entry to the kitchen, where Albert Johnson, the 35-year-old Black homeowner, stood exasperated, telling his wife, Lemona, that the police had returned and were harassing him again. A few minutes later, Johnson was shot by police in front of his seven-year-old daughter and lay bleeding on the hallway floor. In the background, the television aired Sunday morning religious programming.
The entire interaction, from the time police dispatch radioed the Johnson’s address to his shooting, lasted 13 minutes. A few hours later Johnson died in hospital of internal bleeding from the gunshot wound.
The police claimed they were answering an anonymous call that Johnson was acting “abusive and disorderly” in the shared laneway behind his house, causing them to forcibly enter the home fearing for the family’s safety. Lemona Johnson denied any safety concerns that Sunday, instead contending that police had been harassing her husband since May, when a bloody encounter with half a dozen 14 Division police officers left him hospitalized for days.
Over 40 years later, I was astonished to read that news stories following Johnson’s death suggested he may have initiated a racism complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) against Metro Toronto police about that violent incident in May. As a senior human rights lawyer in Ontario, it felt surreal that someone had attempted to directly challenge police authority four decades earlier, especially given we had just experienced the tumultuous summer of George Floyd’s cruel death, which propelled a global protest against anti-Black racism and police brutality.
Also that summer of Floyd’s murder, the OHRC had released “A Disparate Impact,” a voluminous and troubling interim report produced as part of its racial profiling inquiry into the Toronto police. That interim report detailed how Black people are grossly and unfairly overpoliced in Toronto. The final report of this four-year racial profiling inquiry is anticipated to come out this December. Among many disturbing discoveries, the OHRC’s inquiry found that a Black person was nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be the victim of a fatal shooting by Toronto police.
I wondered if Johnson represented an early example of this dire statistic or if his pursuit of a human rights complaint was, in any way, connected to him being shot. This query led to a deep dive into the historical events, legal documents and the newspaper reporting of the time to triangulate the gut-wrenching truth that Metro Toronto police knew about Johnson’s racism complaint four days before his death.
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 resonate today with racialized communities seeking police reform.
In the mid-1970s, as immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa, India and Pakistan settled in the Toronto area, anti-immigrant sentiments and tensions surfaced. Vocalizing increasing concerns about police mistreatment of immigrants, racialized communities turned to the OHRC to serve as a conduit in their tenuous relations with the police.
The OHRC is an arm’s-length government agency serving as the public interest guardian of human rights in the province. From 1962 to 2007, the OHRC is where people went to make complaints about discrimination or harassment in employment, housing or services. In the 1970s, the OHRC did not interpret its investigation and enforcement powers, in other words its jurisdiction, to extend to police services. However, since many people were too frightened to complain directly to the police about police mistreatment, the OHRC became the de facto intake office and repository of public complaints about police misconduct.
This involved hearing the public’s stories about problematic police interactions, drafting their concerns into statements of allegations, referring these complaints to the Metro Toronto Police Citizens Complaints Bureau for investigation and monitoring the outcome of those internal police investigations.
Records from 1977-79 revealed 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 stark trend in alleged police harassment: 72 per cent of complainants were Black. The OHRC also observed a new phenomenon of police failing to serve victims of hate attacks and vandalism: 93 per cent of complainants of such alleged police inaction were South Asian.
Just before the death of Albert Johnson, media were closely following the inquest into another Black man’s death. In August 1978, trepidation that Black people were being targeted by the police grew with the death of Andrew “Buddy” Evans, fatally shot on a sidewalk by a Toronto constable. 14 Division, the precinct implicated in the Evans’s death, was identified as the epicentre of police complaints. Stories suggested rampant racism at 14 Division, including locker room signage prominently promoting the arrest of individuals using the N-word and other ethnic epithets.
With mounting criticism surrounding the start of the Evans coroner’s inquest in the fall of 1978, Black activists intensified their advocacy efforts. The community was critical of the police investigating their own members as a self-serving cover-up because police policing themselves consistently exonerated officers without releasing detailed findings. The stalled Evans inquest, accusations of trigger-happy racist cops and several other deaths involving police galvanized communities to demand reform and call for an inquiry into Metro police in 1979. Human rights activists urged Roy McMurtry, who served as both attorney general and solicitor general, to tackle police racism and abuse by legislating independent oversight.
After months of delay due to controversy about whether the provincial coroner was sufficiently impartial, the Evans inquest resumed to heightened public scrutiny on Aug. 20, 1979. In that week leading up to Johnson’s Aug. 26 death, the media across Canada were consumed with the Evans inquest. Questions were raised about police prejudice and physical abuse, especially pertaining to the Metro police, and the pressing need for public accountability.
Johnson’s human rights complaint
As I read the contemporaneous news reports, I learned that Albert Johnson’s August 1979 death was the culmination of over three months of him feeling besieged by Metro police. However, at that time, Johnson’s claims of police harassment were perceived as evidence of his mental instability.
It all started on May 12, 1979, when Lemona Johnson, thinking her husband was acting peculiar, since recently losing his job, called local police for support.
Two officers came to the Johnson home to look into Lemona’s concerns that Albert wouldn’t stop spraying the water hose on their children. Albert resisted their questioning and allegedly became aggressive. Two additional officers arrived and, ultimately, six 14 Division officers converged, and a violent brawl ensued. Lemona would later recount how, coming from Jamaica, she did not know who to call about Albert’s behaviour and wished she had called a doctor.
Some sources suggest that Albert Johnson telephoned the OHRC directly from the hospital after this 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 frightened with each visit.
Gail Guttentag, the OHRC’s community relations officer assigned to document his concerns, described Johnson as courteous and soft-spoken. Now in retirement, Guttentag recalled Johnson sometimes sang and talked to himself, but he relayed his concerns in a consistent and credible manner. Guttentag’s memory of Johnson’s palpable fear of the escalating police harassment is “seared deep inside” her and she continues to believe he was telling the truth.
Johnson told the OHRC about the harrowing May 12 altercation. He alleged the police had called him the N-word and a “Black bastard,” beaten him on his bed and cuffed his wrists and ankles. After being shackled with three sets of handcuffs, Johnson was allegedly dragged down the stairs of his home, placed in a police wagon and taken to hospital, where he spent three days. Johnson’s bloodstained bed in his house remained unused after this incident. His hospital roommate recalled he was in “bad shape — on intravenous, a huge bandage wrapped around his head and using a bedpan,” the latter because he was violently kicked in the groin.
Following his hospitalization, Johnson said the police hounded him, often stopped him in his neighbourhood for trivial reasons like riding his bike the wrong direction, and repeatedly charged him with disturbing the peace. In one case, the judge chastised the police for laying charges against Johnson for loudly preaching passages of the Bible in the park. The frequent police interactions exacerbated his distress and antipathy of the police. The OHRC had to continually update Johnson’s draft complaint over the summer months because of the recurring, fraught police encounters.
In mid-August, less than two weeks before he died, Johnson told the OHRC the police kept badgering him. Guttentag wrote in her notes that Johnson’s “biggest fear … was that police would shoot him down. He repeated that he thought the police are trying to kill him, and have been making a concerted effort to continually harass him. He feared that this would culminate in his own death.” On Aug. 20, Guttentag documented that Johnson reported that “the police, on a number of occasions, had told him that they intended to kill him.” Six days later, Johnson was fatally shot.
Four days before Johnson’s death, Metro police received a detailed complaint drafted by the OHRC outlining Johnson’s allegations about the brutal May 12 incident and harassment all summer by members of 14 Division. Johnson’s statement was one of several complaints of racial discrimination the OHRC documented and submitted to the police force to investigate in 1979.
A recent change in the OHRC’s complaint referral procedures had been instituted to ensure police administration promptly processed citizens’ complaints. This meant the OHRC had forwarded Johnson’s complaint to the attention of both the chief of police and the Metro Toronto Board of Commissioners of Police. Although this change was supposed to help keep track of complaints, Metro police indicated that Johnson’s complaint had not reached the citizens’ complaint bureau by the time of his death.
Sunday Aug. 26
The Johnson’s home was on a small street, housing mostly southern European families. The homes share a narrow one-way alley with the adjacent street. That summer, Johnson’s rear neighbour directly across the back laneway was increasingly annoyed with Johnson blocking access to the alley. At 12:12 p.m. on Sunday Aug. 26, this neighbour anonymously called police because Johnson was “ranting” in his backyard and the neighbour wanted the police to “cool him out a bit.”
At 12:39 p.m., police radio dispatched the “causing a disturbance” call and three 14 Division uniformed officers, in separate cars, came to Johnson’s house. After the officers spoke with Johnson in his garage, he went inside his house through the back entrance and locked the door. One officer returned to his car and radioed dispatch. Minutes after this officer radioed that everything was in order at the Johnson house, the other two officers kicked in the rear door of the home claiming they heard women and children screaming and crying inside.
Immediately upon entry into the kitchen, the two officers, one junior and one more experienced, tried to arrest Johnson for causing a disturbance. Johnson refused to go with the police. A struggle ensued and a pot of peas cooking on the stove was spilled or thrown on the two officers. The junior officer smacked a two-pound metal flashlight in the centre of Johnson’s forehead, causing a deep gash and gushing blood down his face. Lemona tried to intervene to protect Albert as the police continued to beat him with their batons and soon the Johnson children also became involved in the physical commotion.
Johnson broke free and ran upstairs. At the top of the stairs, he held his 11-year-old daughter near the edge of the stair railing between himself and the police. After releasing her, he went into a bedroom where he allegedly grabbed a lawn edger. Lemona brought this daughter downstairs and ushered her outside; however, a seven-year-old daughter remained in the house.
The more senior officer claimed Johnson came back downstairs holding up the lawn edger. As Johnson descended the stairs and allegedly began swinging the edger, this officer fired an initial shot that ricocheted and then a second shot, hitting Johnson in the chest. Johnson fell to the floor bleeding, until the ambulance arrived at 12:56 p.m.
Johnson’s seven-year-old daughter recounted an entirely different version of events. She said police “hit him and blood was coming down his head. He went upstairs and the cops told him to come down. They came up to get him and told him to kneel down and when he kneeled down they shot him.” In the criminal trial the following year, her evidence was deemed unreliable due to her age and suspicions of coaching.
Although the police initially denied that any officers who had previous interactions with Johnson were involved in his death, and also denied receiving the OHRC statement of allegations, these discrepancies were later corrected. As criminal and civil legal proceedings progressed, the police acknowledged that headquarters had received Johnson’s complaint four days before the shooting. A staff superintendent, who served as the executive officer to the chief of police, opened the OHRC’s letter on Aug. 22, saw the complaint and forwarded the documents on internally.
In the days after the shooting, OHRC commissioner Bromley Armstrong called Johnson as a “marked” man because police were aware of the allegations of racism and violence levied by Johnson four days before his death. Armstrong reported to media that Johnson’s human rights complaint stated that “besides being beaten by police, [Johnson] was approached in hospital shortly after the May 12 incident and told by police that if [Johnson] forgot what happened, there would be no charges.” Armstrong described that Johnson was resolute in expressing “that he would seek his rights” and, because Johnson refused to overlook the May beating, “[t]he police told him he was therefore under arrest and charged him with assaulting police.”
The police constable who on May 12 brought a shackled, badly bleeding Johnson down the stairs of his home and drove him to hospital was the junior officer who, on Aug. 26, helped kicked down the door and then struck Johnson in the head with the flashlight. The more experienced officer, who fired the gun, had previously attended the home on May 27 because of a neighbour’s complaint and filed a report that Johnson should be monitored for being “mentally ill.” And the rear-alley neighbour who called in the anonymous complaint? He was the father of a Metro police traffic officer and knew of Johnson’s ongoing troubles with the police.
Unprecedented legal proceedings
Not only was Albert Johnson’s pursuit of his human rights remarkable, but another extraordinary aspect of this case was that Johnson’s widow, instead of retreating into grief, leveraged community engagement and the legal system to challenge the deadly actions of the police.
On Aug. 27, 1979, Black activists supporting the Johnson family demanded that McMurtry convene an independent inquiry into Johnson’s shooting. Metro police Chief Harold Adamson acknowledged that the OPP were tasked to conduct an independent investigation, an unprecedented step in Toronto, because of the “considerable public concern” over the shooting, including questions of racism.
On Sept. 1, 1979, more than 2,000 protesters, mostly from Black communities, took to the streets of Toronto for six hours demanding transparency and accountability. Protesters marched from Johnson’s home to Queen’s Park carrying an empty coffin and shouting “murder.”
The two constables who kicked down the Johnson door were jointly charged with manslaughter based on an OPP investigation finding the forced entry and failure to retreat was reckless. Although only the experienced officer shot at Johnson, the Crown argued the junior officer contributed to the manslaughter by using excessive force, including having “pounded Johnson twice” with a large steel flashlight. The accused officers pled not guilty. After charges were laid, the Johnson family received racially offensive and threatening calls and letters, some claiming to be from the Ku Klux Klan.
In another unprecedented move, civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby applied to the Ontario High Court of Justice on behalf of the widow, Lemona Johnson, to have the manslaughter charges converted to murder. Believing that there was strong evidence to demonstrate that Johnson’s death was a result of an intentional act, Ruby argued that all three officers should have been charged with murder. In denying the application, the judge rejected Ruby’s argument that the attorney general/solicitor general’s failure to lay murder charges was part of a “cover-up operation.”
A three-week trial began Oct. 21, 1980, before an all-white jury and judge. Although the two constables were the first police officers in Ontario to be jointly prosecuted for killing a civilian while on duty, as the trial progressed, the evidence shifted from scrutinizing the actions of the police to Johnson’s mental health. Not only was racism not raised by the Crown, the Crown explicitly indicated it would not argue racial motivation. While police claims of Johnson’s unruly behaviour that Sunday were contradicted by some neighbours who testified he was not disruptive and that the house was quiet, the defence introduced extensive evidence portraying Johnson as dangerous and mentally unstable.
Ultimately, both officers were acquitted.
After the acquittal, echoing the dismay of Black communities, civil rights activist Dudley Laws publicly decried: “Albert Johnson was on trial. The police were never on trial. It is a disgrace.” The OHRC issued a public letter declaring “urgent need” for an independent police complaints process “to enable individuals such as Albert Johnson to have a forum to complain in confidence about injustices.”
The jury never learned that Metro police headquarters had received Johnson’s complaint of brutality, racism and harassment four days before his death. A civil lawsuit launched by the Johnson family cited the human rights complaint and alleged a “campaign” of personal animosity and racial taunts against Johnson by members of 14 Division who wanted to see him incarcerated. The civil claim asserted negligence of police administration in failing to address racist bias within 14 Division and failure to appropriately train officers on dealing with mental health issues.
The lawsuit was settled in secret in 1988 with no admission of liability by the police. Members of Toronto’s Black communities were outraged over the secrecy and demanded full disclosure.
Along with the terms of the settlement, many other questions remain a mystery surrounding the death of Albert Johnson. Why did the junior officer carry a hefty metal flashlight at noon-hour on a summer day? Why did the officers kick in the back door instead of seeking entry at the front? Why did the father of a Toronto police officer make an anonymous call to police? Who within Metro police knew about Johnson’s complaint of racism and abuse in the four days before his death? Who could Lemona have called for help instead of the police?
The profound impact of Johnson’s killing continued to reverberate for years, motivating Black authors, artists and scholars to interpret, analyze and fictionalize Johnson’s death, including inspiring award-winning poetry and theatre. After Johnson’s death, police services working with human rights and municipal leaders sought to open the lines of communication with racialized communities. The province appointed Sydney Linden as the first public complaints commissioner to receive citizens’ complaints about Metro police in 1980, whose jurisdiction was expanded to all police services in Ontario. As racialized communities continued to push for reform, the province developed legislation leading to the creation of the Special Investigations Unit 10 years later.
In the four decades since the tragic story of Albert Johnson’s death horrified and electrified the city, a lot has changed in Toronto — but, sadly, little has improved with respect to human rights concerns about policing, especially in relation to mental health and race. It was an unfortunate fact that the Crown in 1980 failed to recognize the existence of anti-Black racism in law enforcement and how discriminatory stereotypes about aggression and criminality coalesce at the intersection of race and mental health.
Black Torontonians have long said that they suffer heightened fear and mistrust of police and that this collective trauma is rooted in a history of maltreatment. As the OHRC wraps up its seminal racial profiling inquiry into the Toronto Police Service, we must emphatically put an end to the debate about whether systemic or anti-Black racism exists in policing.
The OHRC’s inquiry is based on the expert research of University of Toronto criminologist Dr. Scot Wortley, who analyzed Toronto police data from 2013-17 to expose systemic disparities in policing of Black people. For example, while Black males represent four per cent of the population, they constitute 23.3 per cent of disturbing-the-peace offences. This means Black men are almost six times more likely to be charged with causing a disturbance — the charge Albert Johnson was repeatedly subjected to in the summer of 1979 — than their demographic representation in the population.
Unfortunately, these disparities occur across a spectrum of policing interactions and, as current research confirms, Black people are more likely than any other racial group in Toronto to be charged, arrested and suffer both low-level use of force, such as being struck or slammed, and high-level use of force, such as being shot or killed, by police.
There remains significant work to be done before Black and other racialized communities can trust that police “serve and protect” all citizens equitably. We may never know if racism and Albert Johnson’s human rights complaint rendered him a “marked” man. But we do know that, like incidents before his shooting and the countless others that followed, Johnson’s death bears witness that racial bias, excessive force, hardline responses to mental health crises, overcharging and opaque internal investigations have persisted for decades as chronic, and sometimes lethal, problems in policing in Toronto.
This content was originally published here.