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Officer down -- but not out

Half-blinded by a shotgun blast, Jim Slater persevered

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Jim Slater's life was changed in ways he never could have imagined just four days after he started working as a police officer patrolling Winnipeg's downtown.

Wounded, as he was, his story is one of a simple and ugly twist of fate that backed him into a corner. But, he drew on his personal strength and the support of his family and a host of others as he moved forward.

While finding his way out of that corner, he did things many doubted were possible and from there went on to create a business that has garnered him the thanks of law enforcement and military the world over.

And smart money says his company had a role in taking down the world's most wanted man.

 

Being a cop wasn't a life-long dream. Hardly.

Slater was your average East Kildonan kid, the son of a railroad man and content with a solid record of Cs and Bs as he plugged along at Miles Macdonell Collegiate. Much of his attention went to the teamwork of volleyball, the individual effort of Iron Man competition and his girlfriend, Glori Parson (who could easily fit onto anyone's Top 10 list of upbeat people).

After graduation, Glori was off to the U. of M. for her education degree and a career in teaching. Jim wasn't sure what he wanted.

He knew what he didn't want and that was his after-Grade-12-job in construction that found him waist deep in the water of a Templeton Ave. swimming pool on a cool October day. He was freezing and he decided then and there that this wasn't his future. As he sloshed around, a cruiser car rolled by. Something about it looked inviting and he thought, why not.

At 19, police recruitment told him to come back in another year. And he would have, except that the next year a no-nonsense traffic man, Tony Proske. pulled him over and flipped him a speeding ticket.

He'd have to wait another two years.

So he worked, moved forward in the construction field and eventually got the call. He'd been accepted. By then he and Glori were married and he decided to take the cop job. He just needed to explain why he'd taken something that cut his income in half.

That was January of 1987. Classes and theory took a few months and on May 1 he was on the street, field-training. His partner was an enthusiastic and young Doug Lofto, who has since gone on to the bright lights of Manitoba Hydro.

Four days into training and late into the evening they were dispatched to 411 Cumberland Ave., a high rise apartment originally built to define sophisticated living in the downtown area. By the mid-1980s, though, most of the intended lustre was a distant memory and Central Park, across the street, was a place to avoid after dark.

The call was a domestic -- the most unpredictable and most dangerous of calls. It was updated by the time they were in the elevator for the slow ride up. A woman was barricaded in the bathroom and threatening to kill herself with a shotgun.

Pretty serious stuff with only four days under his belt.

A second car was dispatched manned by Slater's classmate, Brad Wall and his training officer, Mike Legace, a man with some military background.

In the suite, Slater was handed a fairly benign job -- get on the phone and keep the inspector in the Public Safety Building updated while Lofto and Legace defused the situation.

Negotiations were trying, went nowhere and without warning the woman burst through the bathroom door and charged toward the officers with the shotgun's barrel leveled and ready.

In the cramped quarters the two senior officers instinctively grabbed the gun's barrel and pushed upwards. It blasted into the ceiling and the woman was quickly subdued.

The angle of the shotgun's pellets was perfect as they ricocheted from the ceiling to Slater's position of supposed safety where they burrowed into his face -- one remains there today-- and where a single projectile hit him square in the eye.

Slater didn't know that he'd been shot and describes the pain more like a solid, star-producing punch. In the stink of burnt gunpowder he called out that he had something in his eye. Vitreous humour mixed with blood poured out while he heard the boozy blabbering of the woman who had wanted the police to kill her -- suicide by cop.

He looked in a mirror but couldn't focus.

Lofto's expletive sounded urgent as he radioed for an ambulance.

Street supervisor Rocky McCorriston, arrived and decided not to wait, rushing Slater to the Health Sciences Centre himself. For Slater, the ride was a blur except for his mind strangely wondering if he'd ever fit in with the guys on his shift.

Opthalmology experts crowded around him. Their intense and sharply focused attention got Slater afraid for the first time.

A morning surgery was scheduled to remove the pellet-fragment in his eye and repair the extensive slit it caused. Surgeons used an unscientific term to describe his eye -- hamburger.

McCorriston, whose partner had been wounded in a gunfire exchange just a few years earlier, drove to Slater's house and woke up Glori.

 

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The next day's surgery removed the fragment but continued hemorrhaging was a serious issue. Slater wondered if his life as a cop was over so soon.

The media was hungry for details and the police were being unusually tight-lipped. Reporters went into overdrive. One went looking for information from hospital officials posing as the sister Slater didn't have.

A second surgery was scheduled. The medical team was optimistic but soon aborted the operation when it found it couldn't fix the problem and control the bleeding at the same time.

Still, there was hope and Slater was flown to Toronto and admitted to St. Michael's Hospital for a third surgery.

He had to wait several days but with appropriate precaution he could take the short and welcome outings away from the hospital.

The police association had given the Slaters a thousand bucks for incidentals. Glori made sure they spent every nickel doing things that were fun and creating the needed distractions.

The third surgery came and went. The pain was excruciating. Headaches were intense and nightmares never far away.

Slater remembers his recovery and being lined up in a bed among other patients, like an assembly line. He remembers the surgeon, detached and cool. "You'll never see out of that eye again," adding that a pellet, still embedded in his forehead, could dislodge and damage his brain.

No time for questions. The doctor moved on to the next patient. The devastating, life-changing and final word had been fully delivered in less than one minute.

Unsure of his future and what would become of him, Slater fell into an abyss of gloom and depression. It soon turned to anger.

Days came and went as he lay in his darkened -- by choice-- hospital space.

Glori watched his slide and decided enough was enough.

It was a beautiful Toronto morning, that day, when she walked into his room and raised the blind, forcing some light back into his life. He wasn't happy about it.

 

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It wasn't as if the sunshine of that Toronto morning was some magic elixir. The reassessments and rehab would be hard and there was the future that was anything but certain.

His new found career. What was going on there? Uncertainty defined their lives.

For reasons that remain unclear, McCorriston and Lofto, on behalf of other colleagues and the union, presented Slater with a tandem bike when he returned from Toronto. And what, exactly, was he supposed to do with that?

Glori knew. She sensed that still more time was needed. Away from everything. They needed the welcome diversion that comes with unfamiliar surroundings.

She booked a series of Bed & Breakfasts on Prince Edward Island. They would take that bicycle built for two and cycle the entire province along the sand and seashore, taking on anger, depression and uncertainty at every bend.

 

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It was great therapy as he came to terms with his injury, at the same time believing that his return home would be full of challenges.

Slater re-joined his recruit class for his final days of class work but was uneasy. It was no secret that his having only one eye made the brass uncomfortable. They were obliged to do something. Weren't they?

He had no connections in the department, no pull. Nothing. They hadn't invested that much in him. He got the feeling he was being seen as a liability, excess baggage.

It was late July when they called him in and, like a scene from some old cop show, asked for his badge. It would be OK, he was told. They'd find him something to do.

What? Counting pencils?

Nothing was clear. So he resisted, refused to surrender his badge believing that if he did, that would have been the end of the discussion, and his career.

Not sure where to turn he called on one of his fresh-faced contemporaries, Gerry Maws, today a grizzled veteran of homicide work and the current pull-no-punches head of the Stolen Auto Squad. When he told him about the department wanting his badge, Maws knew, "that doesn't sound right."

He remembers speaking with Sgt. Al Hyde, one of the nicest guys anyone could ever meet, and pouring it all out. He couldn't study. He couldn't concentrate against a backdrop of the potential danger that doctors had warned about and a system that was looking to drop him like a hot potato.

Hyde could only offer assurance -- more hope than assurance -- that things would work out.

He hung on and graduated with the rest of his class but while they headed out to the street, Slater was assigned an inside job with the Communications Centre. His gun was taken from him.

In the years that followed he leaned on the police association and will never forget the unending support of union people like Norm Wickdahl, Paul Dartnell, Jim Davidson, the late John Campell and especially the legal help that came from the union's lawyer, Paul McKenna.

Soon after his Comm-Centre posting the brass called again. They wanted to see him. They had a plan, I suppose.

His co-worker, Karen Samson, a one-time cop who had years earlier voluntarily surrendered her cop status for a position in communications, told him not to go, at least "not without the Association." She made a call and by the time Slater arrived at the meeting, then-president Wickdahl was there to join him.

The meeting was short. Wickdahl, a two-term president, was famous for hard-nosed stands and this one was not negotiable. There would be no decision on the fate of Jim Slater until all the medical evidence was in.

More rehab, more work. After two years he was assigned to Crime Analysis, another inside job. He still wanted to work the street but with monocular vision he'd have to prove himself twice as capable to have any hope at all.

So he did.

Slater represented himself at a medical review board as he successfully argued for his Class 4.0 license. When the department refused to let him take a pursuit driving class (one that, ironically, was delivered by an instructor with one eye) he enrolled in a specialized emergency and pursuit-driving course and scored well. In other eye-hand coordination tests administered by a senior occupational therapist he "...demonstrated well above average results..."

McKenna's file and confidence were growing. "We'll get you back on the street."

But the bosses were unrelenting and balked at any piece of evidence, information or sign that supported Slater's quest for the street. Even an internal Winnipeg police investigation by one of their own traffic experts, Bruce Foster, that determined pursuit driving would not be a concern in Slater's circumstances was given little weight.

A doctor's opinion added to the police executives' grave concerns when he reported Slater would absolutely never be able to shoot in a close-quarters situation.

McKenna and the union wanted to test that conclusion. He had already proven he could handily far exceed the department's shooting requirements and with only one eye scored better than the average of several recruit classes.

But more was needed.

With the union footing the bill he was sent to Montreal for a nerve-racking shooting and firearms course specially designed for Navy SEAL and Delta Force training. He achieved top marks missing only one shot. The instructor described his performance as "superior" to many others that have taken the same course.

On issues of self-defence a specialized instructor reported in 1990 that his reflexes and reaction times were "very good" and with no training in three years prior to that test, he did "exceptionally well."

That was enough. "We have them now," McKenna declared.

After years of doubt, McKenna's certainty infected Slater's thoughts. There was a stack of overwhelming evidence that ended with the lawyer writing, "there is no more that Constable Slater need do to prove himself." The department acquiesced. It was 1991 and the new union prez, Jack Haasbeek, was delighted to sign off and close the file.

Four years after his odyssey began (and two years after the woman who shot him had completed her two years of probation) Slater was OK'd for street duty and was partnered with Jim "Jammy" Anderson, who now works with the Professional Standards Unit.

By then, eldest son Jeff had been born and Riley wasn't far behind.

 

Slater had always shown an interest in the K9 Unit. He was a regular volunteer on dog-training days where he set himself up as the quarry that the canines would seek out, chase, and sometimes attack, in bushes and darkened warehouses, as they worked to hone their much valued skills.

Two years working a patrol car led to Slater joining the dog unit as a full-time member. He and "Olaf" made a remarkable team that racked up hundreds of arrests in their eight-year partnership.

Dog injuries were never far from his mind in those first years and memories were still fresh of a Christmastime attack in 1988. Const. Boris Luhowy's dog. "Mitch," was stabbed at a Kentucky Fried Chicken break-in on Notre Dame Ave., but survived and overpowered the suspect.

Just a year later, Cliff Samson and his dog, "Goliath," raced to a stabbing scene where a pot of boiling grease was hurled at the canine. Goliath suffered burns to his head and neck which would have been worse had it not been for his heavy winter fur.

In 1996 Slater and Olaf were part of an emergency response team that was dispatched into the thick of the Headingley Jail riot to reclaim order from the prisoners that were maiming other prisoners, using weapons and setting fires.

The multimillion-dollar uprising and memories of those dog injuries set the next mission. Cops had protective gear. So should the dogs. It led Slater in the development of a custom-fitted, bullet and stab proof vest for his dog.

Why not produce them for other police dogs?

 

At the time, Glori and Jim were in the middle of raising their two young boys. Glori was working on her Master's degree in education and Jim was taking on a 14-year commitment to coach volleyball at a local school.

A new business could easily have been too much. But they jumped in with both feet anyway, starting in the basement.

And just like that K9 Storm -- a business that produces protective vests for dogs while enhancing their extraordinary abilities in the field -- was added to their family.

It was hard, time-consuming work. But success makes hard work well worthwhile.

Across North America there are documented cases of police dogs being saved from certain death by K9 Storm apparel in attacks that range from being hit multiple times by a high-powered handgun, to being stabbed with a pitch fork to being set on fire.

The business has grown and just like a kid is no longer relegated to the basement. Their product is in constant development.

The business keeps him hopping, but it's the media that have been running him ragged.

Outlets from all over the world have been looking for his input, some kind of sound bite, on the taking of Osama bin Laden.

A Navy SEAL team took down the world's No. 1 terrorist in May and they had a dog with them equipped with armour and technical gear - just like the stuff Slater makes.

He's coy about his company, K9 Storm Inc., and its 15-country client base and is reluctant to discuss specifics. But credible reporting suggests his made-in-Winnipeg product was being worn by the Navy SEAL dog involved in the bin Laden takedown.

 

Slater's product is lauded in police and military circles. Not just for the superlative protection it affords the dogs but also for the technical components that allow man's best friend to transmit real time intelligence to their human counterparts while parachuting from planes, fast-roping from helicopters, entering a firefight, sniffing out explosives or quietly approaching an enemy in water.

Everyone loves stories about dogs. With the terrorism element, even David Letterman contacted Slater, as did someone pitching a reality show. He chuckles at that one, thinking most viewers would get bored, real quick.

Slater suffers from a heavy dose of humility. He knows there are many more that have overcome tougher challenges and gone on to accomplish bigger things.

But this isn't a story of comparison. It's about a local guy who got a bad break and worked through it, leaving a mark along the way that's earned him the respect and gratitude of law enforcement, security and military around the world. And the thanks of a bunch of dogs that would like to shake his paw.

Jim Slater retired from the police service four years ago. Olaf retired a few years before that and was part of the Slater family until his passing in 2004.

Jim and Glori continue their hand-on approach in running their full-time business and their journey is nowhere near over.

Last month he got a call from a U.S. ex-special ops man who'd left that business after being wounded on a mission a few years ago. Plans were made to film a television spot for Discovery Channel's Daily Planet, using the ex-military man to demonstrate some new K9 Storm parachuting components. As part of the deal he wanted to take Slater with him and throw him out at 14,000 feet.

And just like he thought when he saw the cruiser roll by that freezing swimming pool those many years ago, Slater said "why not?" Last week he and his two boys were off to the eastern U.S. Along with a dog they all took that three-mile plunge - something Slater told me was the "rush of a lifetime."

Where he is today was perhaps prefaced by that twist of fate 24 years ago. But more than anything it's proof of what's possible with rightful determination and support.

I'm proud of him, his company, and the people who t backed him through the years. That includes his partner and wife Glori, one of the happiest people I know.

 

rm112800@hotmail.com

 

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 23, 2011 J1

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