Almost 24 years after it happened, South Surrey’s Laurie White still has vivid memories of the incident that changed her life in an instant.
At the time, White was a young RCMP constable in Kitimat, B.C., two and a half years into her first posting.
On a sunny afternoon in November, 1998, together with two work partners, she was attempting to execute a search warrant at the home of an alleged sex offender.
As she writes in her recently-published memoir, 10-33 – An Officer Down Steps Back Up (Friesen Press), the suspect’s car was in the carport of the townhouse – but no-one could tell whether he was at home.
One of her partners was at the back door; she and the other officer were trying a key they’d obtained from the complex superintendent on the front door. When it wouldn’t budge, White stepped back from the door, intending to take the key round to the back of the house and try the lock there.
She didn’t get any further. There was a shot (“It sounded like a balloon popping…right beside my head”) and smoke clouded out from a gaping hole in the white door of the townhouse.
Her nostrils were filled with the smell of gunpowder, and she felt a “burning, searing, red-hot” sensation in her right shin.
Looking down, she saw smoke billowing from the same area of her leg.
“It was bizarre, so surreal to have have every one of my senses kick in, to be so acutely aware of my surroundings, and my body, yet still be so utterly confused about what had just happened…Standing there, still unable to grasp the reality, the gravity, I said to my partner ‘I’ve been shot.’”
Carried from the scene by two firefighter/paramedic friends after the distress code had gone out on the police radio (10-33: officer down) White was aware she had lost a lot of blood and that her leg and foot were dangling.
When the ambulance brought her to Kitimat hospital, arrangements were already being made to airlift her to Vancouver General Hospital – and that’s when she realized that her condition was very serious.
It was even worse than she had supposed. The bullet, from a sawed-off .303 rifle, had shattered her lower right leg. After a marathon eight hours of operating, and 13 transfusions, surgeons realized they could not restore circulation to her foot and were forced to make the decision to amputate, five inches below her knee.
By that time the perpetrator, who was being investigated for sexual interference with minors, was dead – the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, following a 10-hour standoff with police.
The consequences of his action – as White relates in 10-33 – An Officer Down Steps Back Up – have been long-lasting; emotionally and physically devastating to both herself and her family.
But as the book’s subtitle suggests, they couldn’t ultimately defeat a woman who, as she freely admits, had always been determined and driven to succeed.
In spite of chronic pain that persists to this day, and the difficult process of rehabilitation and adjusting to the prosthetic lower leg and foot tailored to her by prosthetist Ricky Chu, White pushed herself to return to some semblance of normal life.
With the invaluable guidance of physiotherapist Linda MacLaren, she was able to overcome hurdles that would have discouraged many. She learned to drive and even skate again. Most importantly, she was once again able to meet the daunting RCMP physical abilities requirement.
Incredibly, only 10 months after she had been shot, White had returned to full-time duty with the Kitimat detachment – the first police officer in Canadian history to have returned to full, unrestricted policing duties with an artificial leg.
She remained with the RCMP for two decades after that, retiring in January 2020. By then she was a sergeant assigned to administrative duties at the Green Timbers headquarters in Surrey (she has lived in South Surrey for the last 15 years).
During that time she also raised two children as a single mother (her daughter, Rachel, is now attending UVic, while her son, Brett, is now in Grade 11 in Surrey School District).
White – an in-demand public speaker throughout her police career – has received many kudos for her spirit and dedication, including the Governor General’s Meritorious Service medal; a medal of valour from the International Association of Women in Policing, and a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal.
But 10-33 – An Officer Down Steps Back Up tells another side to her story.
In her memoir White hasn’t shied away from expressing the bitter truths of her long journey to physical and emotional recovery – sometimes expressed in very salty language. It’s an honest account, in which she hasn’t hesitated to expose her own vulnerability.
But it’s also an inspiring document, all the more so because she hasn’t covered up the cracks of her struggle with PTSD and depression with typical self-help book platitudes or a false facade of bravery. Instead, she provides relatable insights into an experience most of us can only begin to imagine.
“I felt it was important to share the lows and appreciate the highs,” she said, adding that she has chosen to publish her story in hopes that it will inspire others, and perhaps help her children understand her a little better.
“As I was going through the book, I thought ‘should I be referencing the ‘Five Stages of Grief’?’ But then I realized that that was somebody else’s words. I wanted it to be my own words and from my heart.”
White said that as she has matured she has become more and more aware that “bad stuff can happen to good people,” and also that others’ ordeals in life may be just as hard for her to grasp as hers have been for other people.
“It’s the emotions that really equalize us and humanize us,” she said. “While there’s a strong police element to this, it’s really transferable to any area of life.”
The book started, she said, not as a formal journal of her ongoing recovery, but as a “dumping place” for thoughts about what she was going through and what she felt in the moment.
“When I was first invited to speak, I didn’t know what people wanted to hear,” she said. “I’ve had a lot more time since to process things. I think I’m very fortunate that I’ve had so much time to get to know myself.”
Something else she hopes the book will achieve is to help “humanize” the profession of policing.
“(As officers), we’re just people trying to do what we think is right,” she said. “We have to make split-second decisions and face some harsh realities pretty much daily.”
White is honest to say that she is still unable to forgive the man who pulled the trigger that fateful day – but she has come to terms with what happened to her.
“I’ve forgotten the anger and arrived at a place of peace,” she said.
“I think that’s more important than telling people they have to forgive, when it can sometimes make them feel lesser, or guilty if they aren’t able to feel that.”
It’s not an unremittingly grim memoir, she said – she has taken care to include humorous and very human incidents in her narrative – and she has been overwhelmed by the kindnesses shown by the general public and the support from total strangers over the years.
She can’t recall now, when she made the decision to return to full duty in Kitimat.
She was surrounded by a media circus when she was first wounded, she said.
“My face was plastered over everywhere,” she said. “I understand that – I was a young woman, I was an RCMP officer, I was investigating sex crimes when I was shot.
“And then it was, ‘She says she’s going back to work’ – that was the message that got picked up. I don’t remember saying that – maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.”
At the same time, she acknowledged, the goal was characteristic of her drive and determination.
“I’m very much a perfectionist,” she said. “I still do things to prove myself – like working out every day – but now it’s proving myself to myself, not to others.”
Perhaps the most important benefit of writing the book, for her, has been gaining perspective on an incident that coloured virtually her entire career, she noted.
“When I started with the goal of writing this book, I didn’t know what it would look like,” she said. “But as I got closer to retirement, I realized it was a way to (gather up) that package and say goodbye to that chapter of my life.
“I’ve given up some expectations that I had earlier on. But most days are good days. I have a good life; I have two beautiful children and a loving partner.
“I’ve achieved some of the goals I set around the book. What’s my next goal? I don’t know – but I do know there will be one.”
10-33 – An Officer Down Steps Back Up is available from amazon.ca, friesenpress.com or at Indigo Books at Grandview Corners.