Editor’s Note: This story contains some graphic details.
Tom Thompson says Hants County has become his security blanket after a career filled with carnage in the Halifax Police Department.
It’s his home, his sanctuary and it’s his distraction from the chaos he endured while in the front lines of Halifax’s crime world.
With an armful of old newspapers, where he’s managed to find himself on the front page during major events in the city, Thompson opens up about the impact his life in policing has had on him.
“There was this little guy, and his mother was dying of breast cancer and she let him go next door to play with his friend. A person came around the corner with a steak knife and the first blow went right between the skull and the scalp as far as the knife would go, I’m talking a four-year-old kid,” Thompson said, his voice breaking a couple of times.
“He put his hand up like that,” he said, gesturing with his arm. “And it went right through his hand, in through his scalp and skull and the tip of the knife was lodged in his brain. Well, you just don’t go home and have supper after that.”
Luckily, the child was OK.
“I remember getting home, only to turn right around and go back to the hospital and sit there all night until I knew he was going to make it,” he said. “Kids are rubbery, and just by the grace of God, he’s alive and well.”
Thompson recalls the child’s mother as having a smile that would light up a room. He helped out with fundraisers for the family and became close to them after the incident. The mother eventually succumbed to cancer.
“I’ll always remember that one,” Thompson said, his head bowed.
His memory is full of graphic scenes from his career, it’s something that he lives with, that has changed him.
“I remember a guy, long story short, he had a little 4-10 shotgun, was in a Pontiac Fire Bird, and I couldn’t see exactly what was going on, there was some shuffling, but he pulled that gun up, laid his head on the side of it and he blew his head off while I was trying to unlock the door,” he said. “When I look back at some of these things today, I think, my God, how did I ever do that stuff? I get pins and needles down my legs.”
'If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't'
He says now he doesn't know what drew him to policing to begin with.
“And if I had it all to do over again, I wouldn’t. But I have the utmost respect for the guys and the girls that are out there today.”
People would often ask him how he handles it – his go-to response would be that he didn’t have time to think about it because he’s heading for the next one.
But now, retired from that career, the memories still come back from his decades of service with the Halifax Regional Police, facing the city’s most heinous crimes.
“I don’t really talk about it anymore; that was then, it was a chapter in my life that I didn’t realize what I was going through,” he said.
Thompson grew up in the Windsor area, attending Kings College School (KCS), where he was the head boy of the 1974 graduating class.
“I was in the same classroom as Tom Stephen, who would go on to be the drummer of the Jeff Healey Band and William Stairs, who would be the press secretary for Prime Minister Stephen Harper,” he said. “Little did we know the different walks in life that we would experience.”
Thompson found out he was accepted into the RCMP on his graduation day but had to wait until he turned 19. He worked at the Stedman’s store until he was old enough to go.
He did his training in Regina with the RCMP in 1975 before transferring to the Halifax Regional Police.
Thompson recalls his first fatality on Highway 101, which he calls a “highway through hell.” He personally responded to nine fatalities driving between his home and work.
“You learn from each and every one of those experiences,” he said. “If everybody would go get their basic first aid training, airways, breathing and circulation, pretty basic stuff, it would help.”
'It was just non-stop'
After a few years in uniform, Thompson went to Ottawa for training in forensic identification at the Canadian Police College. He became heavily involved with crime scene investigation after that, collecting evidence, taking photos of crime scenes, monitoring autopsies and more.
“Metro, in and around the city, there were days that it was just non-stop,” he said. “You didn’t know what the next incident would be, you were always waiting for the big catch, one that would take some time and involve a lot of investigative techniques.”
Despite the chaos and the violence, Thompson was constantly impressed by the skill and the professionalism of the investigators he worked with.
Luckily, he had people in his life who would offer advice or listen to his stories to help him get through the tough moments.
“In the old days, if you experienced something really traumatic, they gave you a bottle (of booze) and sent you home. That’s how a lot of my friends coped. I was never a drinker,” he said.
Thompson eventually transferred out of the crime scene identification department and worked in the drug enforcement division.
“The best part of my life was spent in the dark because that’s when everything happened,” he said. “I remember taking a law student out for a ride one night and I said, ‘We can’t sit here too long because we’re being watched.’ There were sets of eyes on us everywhere.”
One of his main roles was keeping tabs on several sources, who he got to know well.
“I could just roll down the window, yell out the name (redacted) and out of the fog in the darkness this guy would come out,” he said. “I remember two Mounties looking at each other and saying ‘this is spooky.’ I was well known for the number of informants I had. I always tried to see the little bit of good in everybody.”
Before retiring, Thompson worked out of the Sackville detachment as a joint-forces traffic operation made up of three RCMP members and seven HRP members.
“I had all of Halifax County, so you could find me in Sheet Harbour, Hubbards, Peggy’s Cove,” he said. “If the weather was bad, I was in the car; if it was good, I was on the bike.”
Thompson said that was a good way to finish off his career in policing. He officially retired in 2007.
Hants County a haven
“I think the biggest coping mechanism for me is Hants County itself,” Thompson said. “We come from one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
He said it’s refreshing to walk down a street where people say ‘good morning’ to each other.
“As a policeman, you become very suspicious of everybody, you always wonder what’s going on in their head, what are they up to?” he said. “When you do that every day, day in day out, for so many years, it has an effect on you."
The small town closeness of the community has helped him trust people again, he said.
"But I don’t see that around here. You can breathe the fresh air, you don’t have to sit with your back against the wall, watching the doorway," he said.
“It’s like the weight of the whole world is off your shoulders."
He was only retired from his job with the HRP for one month before taking an investigator job with Nova Scotia Power, helping track down copper thieves and other matters.
He said he really enjoys his new job, adding that he can’t say enough good things about the people who work for the company.
Thompson isn’t the only retired police officer with the utility; there are several retired members who have developed a bond through working with NSP.
“My old boss recommended me for this job, and then when he retired, I recommended him, and now he’s my boss again,” he said with a laugh.