A Kitchener, Ontario man was arrested and strip searched last week, all because his four-year-old daughter drew a picture of him holding a pistol. Read about it here (Daily Mail, 2/28/12).
For Jessie Sansone, it must have been a day much like any other. He went to his daughter’s school to pick her up as usual, only to be met by three uniformed police officers of the Waterloo Police Department. They handcuffed him and took him to the station. There he was strip searched and thrown into a cell. Apparently they told him he was being charged with possession of a firearm which, plainly, he didn’t have.
His wife, Stephanie Squires, who was waiting at home with their 15-month-old baby, was made to come in to the police station while the children were taken in for interviews at Family and Children’s Services, The Record reports.Eventually, at Sansone’s invitation, the police searched the family’s house and uncovered nothing but a plastic toy gun of the type that shoots darts via a spring mechanism. Then and only then were charges dropped against him.
Police were originally alerted by the girl’s school. Her teacher had seen a drawing the girl had made of a man with a pistol. When the teacher inquired about the drawing, the girl said “That’s my daddy. He uses it to shoot bad guys and monsters.” Armed with that information, the teacher concluded that the girl was in danger and called the police.
Where to begin? Unless the teacher herself believes in monsters (and I say there’s at least a fair possibility of that), did it not occur to her that this was a fantasy of the girl’s? It’s easy to imagine a father and his little girl playing together and pretending to shoot “bad guys and monsters.” It’s also easy to imagine a little girl fantasizing about her father protecting her from “bad guys and monsters.” Apparently none of that occurred to the teacher.
But in what sane world do the fantasies of a four-year-old constitute probable cause to arrest and strip search a law-abiding citizen? None that I know of.
Second, I don’t know what the gun laws in Canada are, but I do know that some Canadians own firearms. For one thing, many Canadians are enthusiastic hunters and few of them do it with bows and arrows, although some do. So the simple fact is that, although he didn’t, Sansone could well have had a gun in the house and it would all have been perfectly legal.
That means that the police had to conclude from the girl’s statement not only that there was such a weapon in the house, but that Sansone possessed it illegally. Put simply, they had absolutely no evidence to support such a theory.
Moreover, if they’d been concerned, they could easily have gone about finding out the facts in less intrusive and less overbearing ways than they did. For example, they could have told Sansone from the start what had happened, that they were concerned for the child’s safety and asked him about the presence of firearms in his home. He would have told them there were none and, as he eventually did, offered to let them see for themselves. No arrest, no strip search.
That still would have been far more of an intrusion into his family’s privacy than was warranted, but it would have been more defensible than what actually occurred.
So we have to ask, why the police did what they did. And the answer that comes to mind is that, where children are concerned, the state has found a very effective way of asserting state power where it once had no business going – home and family. Now, we’re all for protecting children who are actually at risk of harm. But taking a child’s drawing and her fantasized statement and converting them into an excuse to arrest and strip search a fit father and citizen with no police record has nothing to do with protecting children.
I would argue that it was an exercise of police power for its own sake. It’s like a demonstration project whose aim is to educate the public. The lesson to be learned is that the police can and will use the pretext of child protection to unlawfully intervene in family life. And if someone wants to complain, let them, because the police know that, when it comes to children, no one is about to curtail their power.
The Children’s Aid Society in Ontario knows the same thing. That’s why it’s one of the most reviled of all public institutions in the province. CAS is legendary for its abuses of power, for taking children from parents for little or no reason and daring them to fight back. Again, CAS knows that it has virtual carte blanche from politicians because not a one of them wants to be seen cutting back on ”our” ability to “protect children.”
And as virulent as the backlash regarding Jessie Sansone’s arrest has been, you can bet he and many others have learned exactly the lesson the police were bent on teaching. Shuffle your feet, hang your head, avert your eyes, say “yes sir” and “no sir,” and above all don’t stand up to the police. You see what they can do, and they will.
The sad irony of all this is that the little girl who innocently started the whole brouhaha believed that her daddy could protect her from bad guys. I guess she knows better now.