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The Globe and Mail

Amid graduation celebration, a sobering reminder for new police officers

There were two moments of silence in the usually noisy gymnasium at the Toronto Police College this week.

The first one dropped out of nowhere on Wednesday morning, as 42 recruits were practising for the next day's graduation ceremony. Word came that Sergeant Ryan Russell, an 11-year police veteran, had been rammed and killed with a stolen snowplow.

The second came Thursday during the ceremony itself, where Sgt. Russell's sacrifice was formally honoured, and where the same recruits took one last lesson in what the policing life so often means: taking a hit, bearing up, moving on.

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"Yesterday was indeed one of our worst days, and yet today, we are able to gather for this celebration," Chief Bill Blair told his new officers, calling their graduation an honour to the fallen officer's memory. "It's okay to smile today."

As much as anyone at the ceremony, Chief Blair embodied the unusual but often-unseen burden carried by those who risk their safety to serve the public. In the span of 24 hours, he had gone from consoling Sgt. Russell's wife, Christine, at St. Michael's Hospital, to greeting the smiling families of 42 young people embarking on sometimes perilous careers.

A scant hour before he donned his white dress gloves for the graduation, Chief Blair faced reporters with news that Richard Kachkar, 44, had been charged with first-degree murder in Sgt. Russell's death, and two counts of attempted murder.

The deadly result of the pre-dawn incident, in which officers shot and injured the driver of the careening plow truck to stop it, loomed throughout more than two hours of pomp and ceremony in the sunlit gym at the police college, newly built near the city's west-end waterfront.

"This is a day of very mixed emotions," Lieutenant-Governor David Onley said, calling Sgt. Russell's death "a sobering reminder of the dangers that police officers face every day."

Mayor Rob Ford thanked the graduates for the sacrifices they have taken on to keep Toronto residents safe.

"My thanks are even deeper after the events of yesterday, the horrible loss of Sgt. Ryan Russell," Mr. Ford said.

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For recruits' families, police graduations have long been punctuated by a mixture of pride and apprehension, as they watch their loved ones step out of school and into the oft-hostile world inhabited by criminals.

The nervousness was a touch more palpable Thursday, despite the many smiles among the smartly dressed crowd. The new officers' vulnerability was magnified all the more as Staff Sgt. Bill Viera introduced each one with a description of their previous working lives: former mechanic, onetime finance officer, ex-McDonald's manager.

Afterward, graduates milled about with their families, sharing hugs and handshakes and posing for pictures.

"We found out about it in the morning, when it happened," said graduate Rupinder Gill, 29, recalling how Wednesday morning's practice session fell silent. "We were preparing for graduation, and when the news broke, it really drove home what this job entails and the responsibilities that are put on us."

On the eve of Thursday's ceremony, Sgt. Russell's death led to a frank discussion between Mr. Gill and his fiancée, Jassie Dhaliwal, who suggested he reconsider his decision to choose policing over a previous interest in law.

"I work in the banking industry; I don't put my life on the line," Ms. Dhaliwal said. "But I guess at the same time, you have to support the people you care about, if that's their passion."

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Marinella Black looked on Thursday as her 25-year-old son, Cameron, became an officer. Her other son, Christopher, 28, will be in the next graduating class.

Ms. Black, who recently retired as compensation and benefits manager for the Toronto Police, is well aware of the heart-wrenching nature of law enforcement work, but said this goes with the territory for parents of all who work in dangerous fields, not just policing.

"There's always a part that worries, but you live with it," Ms. Black said.

When she heard about Sgt. Russell, she could not help but reflect on the danger her sons will face, but is nonetheless happy they have chosen to serve.

"I was visibly upset yesterday," she said, scanning the post-ceremony crowd for the newly sworn Constable Cameron Black, "but I'm very proud of him today."

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