A heavily armed police tactical unit is seen during an exercise - Date unknown Don Healy.
14 May 2014
Arrest of Lake Megantic Engineer
an Embarrassing Sideshow
Lake Megantic Quebec - On Monday, a tactical unit of the Quebec provincial police force, La Serete du Quebec (SQ), arrested Thomas Harding in the backyard of his home in Farnham, Quebec.
Mr. Harding, 53, was the engineer responsible for the oil-laden runaway train that barrelled into the quiet town of Lake Megantic last summer, leading to a massive explosion.
Forty seven people were killed and the downtown core of the town devastated by fire.
Mr. Harding, along with two other employees of the Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), face 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death, and could spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
The men have been released on bail pending further court appearances.
What caused this terrible rail disaster is still unknown.
Mechanical malfunction and human error have both been proposed as explanations, and relatively lax safety regulations are also being tightened by the federal government.
But the investigation into this tragedy is still ongoing, and it will be left to the courts to determine whether Mr. Harding and his co-accused are guilty of any crimes.
Only time will tell.
It is not too early, however, to wonder why Mr. Harding was subjected to the treatment that he was.
Since the disaster, Mr. Harding has avoided public comment, but has co-operated fully with authorities.
He has spoken to the police, he was spoken with accident investigators.
Indeed, after his arrest, his lawyer informed the media that Mr. Harding, aware that charges were likely, had already signalled his willingness to present himself at a police station for processing should the Crown wish to launch a criminal proceeding.
So why was a heavily armed tactical unit sent to Mr. Harding's home, where they threw him, his son, and a visitor to the ground, before cuffing Mr. Harding and hauling him away for 10 hours of interrogations?
That's an odd way to treat a co-operative subject who has already signalled his willingness to peacefully surrender through normal channels.
The incident seems like, at the very least, a rather excessive commitment of valuable police resources, or, at worst, a politically motivated stunt.
The SQ has not responded to criticism of their tactics, citing policy against commenting on arrests, saying only that, in general terms, every arrest situation is handled differently, given the available facts.
Media reports in Quebec indicate that the police were concerned because Mr. Harding had earlier expressed suicidal thoughts and firearms, some improperly stored and unregistered, had previously been found in the home.
That explanation makes no sense.
If police had grounds to believe that Mr. Harding was in unlawful possession of firearms, they should have obtained a warrant, searched his home, and removed any they found.
Further, if police believed that Mr. Harding posed a risk to himself or others, that is itself grounds for a seizure of any firearms in the home, under the Canadian Firearms Act.
It is bizarre, dangerous, even, for the police to believe that a mentally unstable man may harm himself, and also believe that he possesses firearms, and yet do nothing for many months.
More to the point, if Mr. Harding was believed to be armed and mentally unstable, that is all the more reason to pursue other avenues of arresting him.
Mr. Harding, for instance, could have been monitored and then quietly arrested when he was about in public, and thus far removed from any potential arsenal.
Or the police could have simply taken Mr. Harding up on his previous offers of co-operation, asked him to come in for some questioning, and quietly arrested him at the station, or other arranged meeting place.
Sending a tactical unit into Mr. Harding's home, if they believed him armed and imbalanced, was a reckless act that endangered not only Mr. Harding and his family, but also police officers.
Even should he be acquitted of all charges, Mr. Harding will spend the rest of his life knowing that he was intimately involved in a disaster that killed 47 innocent people.
Indeed, he was forced to see the faces of many grieving relatives when police hauled him, and his co-accused, handcuffed through a crowd on the streets of Lake Megantic, on the way to a court hearing, another questionable, and seemingly politically motivated, decision by police.
A court may ultimately find him criminally negligent, but he is not an evil man, and has already suffered tremendously.
That the police would subject him and his family to a traumatic raid on his home is a troubling sideshow compounding an already tragic situation.