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Mayor Mel Lastman,
100 Queen Street West,
Dear Mayor Lastman,
I just found out you're about to give the police an extra 3 million dollars to keep things in order in the parks and the schoolyards next summer. But I feel I have to warn you: when it comes to parks, somebody is going to get hurt with all those police cars driving around on the grass! We had so many police cars driving across our park last summer for an extra one million dollars, how can they possibly fit in any more without starting to run over people?
And besides that, the idea of "community action policing" may be good in theory but I have to tell you that in our park, the police haven’t got the practical details right. I know this because, seven years ago, I rolled up my sleeves and got involved in our neighbourhood park. Our little community group has received a “Safe City” award, a civic award from Toronto city council, and a peace medallion from our YMCA. We’ve raised over a quarter of a million dollars to help make our park better. I’m telling you this not to boast, but because I’m hoping you’ll take seriously what I have to say about community policing in parks.
I first started to have my doubts about the way the parks are policed on one particular Saturday in June, about four years ago. I was going around our park with a crew of young kids, painting over graffiti. In the middle of the afternoon, four really nasty, foul-mouthed drinkers (not teenagers, but grown-ups, so-called) settled themselves on the grass right between the basketball court and the park's main walkway. They were waving their bottles around and shouting their nonsense in front of the hundreds of people going by. And then they really got me mad by calling over some of those young kids on my work crew and pressing them to have some beer. So I went up to them and asked them to stop. Well, they just told me, in no uncertain terms, to get out of their way and out of the park. But instead of taking their advice I thought I'd go call the community response police and let them know this illegal thing was happening, so they could come and give all those drinkers tickets. That would teach them something.
No such luck though. The community response police were all booked to go the Benson and Hedges Festival of Fireworks later that day and so they couldn't come to the park and help. They gave me another number to call, but that group of police must have all been busy. So those drinkers were able to curse the ears off people for another hour or more. They finally ran out of beer and staggered out of the park themselves. The message that they gave to the other park users was that it’s okay to behave like that in parks.
After that I noticed it’s not that easy to get help from the police for bad behaviour in the winter either. Our park’s skating rink, like some of the other rinks in the city, was a hang-out for some tough teenagers. They bothered other rink users, with their cursing and their pushiness, to the point where lots of families and women and younger kids stopped coming. The staff thought, if they could only kick those fellows out of that rink a few times it would teach them they had to act civilized before they were allowed back. But they refused to leave! They said the staff had no right to throw them out no matter how nasty they were. Over the years, they had really come to believe that public space was a place where you could act any way you wanted and nobody could tell you what to do.
It had got to the point where even the rink tractor drivers were sometimes so scared they locked themselves in the compressor room and hid out there. The supervisors told the rink staff to call the police when they needed help to make skaters obey city rink by-laws. But that often didn't work. The police usually took a long time. By the time they got there those teenagers had made their point and left.
So a few of us, a couple of the park staff and a couple of the neighbours like me, went to see the police superintendent. "Please," we said, "couldn't you just give us four or five chances to get the police to come quickly, when they're called to back up the staff? After four or five times of the police showing the teenagers they have to obey the rink staff, we wouldn't need to call you very often anymore." But the superintendent said "no, that's not how we operate. Unless it's a dangerous crime, you'll have to line up for service with everybody else."
So the park supervisor hired a private security company. It seemed strange to me for a city supervisor to have to hire an outside company to back up city staff enforcing the by-laws in a city building. But what else could he do? The company responded fast three times -- once with a mean-looking dog -- and that helped. And a couple of times the police did come pretty quickly themselves when the staff called them. That helped too. So by now, after four years, that rink is a pretty decent place. About five times as many people come there now, compared to when I first went. They skate or play shinny and when they're tired they come inside and sit in front of the wood stove and eat cookies. I've met the nicest people there, of all ages. We pay some of the teenagers to make the cookies in the rink kitchen, and that works well.
We haven’t figured out how to fix our summer problems, though. A few years ago some really foolish teenagers found our park and they stuck there. Sometimes they're in a pretty strange state in their heads, I think, from drugs or alcohol. Some have cell phones, to call their friends over, and some like to make their dogs act vicious. Sometimes some of them threaten other people in the park. They like to play taped music with very nasty words about women and guns, very loud. At times they drink cases of beer right out in the open, and sometimes throw the bottles on the concrete to break them. They have infected some of the other teenagers with their foolish behaviour. But the times when I called the police as these things were happening, they often waited a long time to come, or didn't show up at all.
I want to make something clear: all these years it's not like the police never came to the park. It's only that they mostly came when they decided to, driving the cruisers over the grass, sometimes stopping and talking to someone, sometimes just driving out again. They almost never seemed to talk to the park staff about what they were up to. I couldn't see how that made sense. Here's an example: one day they brought in police on horses, and extra police cars, and even a van for transporting prisoners. It turned out they thought the dress rehearsal for a giant-puppet play in the park was an anarchist demonstration. Those puppet players just showed them their permit and then the police went off again, loading up the horses into the horse trailers. (One horse dropped some manure in the schoolyard across from the park and an officer got out his shovel and picked it up.) But the police could have saved themselves a lot of trouble, before moving all those officers in there, by just making a quick phone call to the park staff. The staff would have told them what everybody in the neighbourhood knew already, that those puppeteers had their workshop in the park and they had been there rehearsing every day!
But the police seemed to operate in a bit of a bubble all their own. They said they were too busy and they didn't have enough money to do it any other way.
When we heard last summer that you politicians had voted the police extra money to deal with nuisance behaviour so we could all feel safer in the parks and the school yards, I thought: now we’ll finally get quick help exactly at the moment when people are doing these illegal things. But then it seemed as if the police bubble just got bigger! Officers we had never seen before started driving across the park and getting out wherever they found some teenagers sitting at the picnic tables and asking them to tell their names, when and where they were born, and so on. They did that over and over, every day, very often with the same teenagers, good ones and bad ones just the same. Then they sent one homeless garbage picker to jail because a lady said he threatened to kill her. Well, everybody knew that man, and we had seen that lady too, for years. She has a bad temper, and he's a very friendly man, and the story she told the police didn't really make sense to any of us, but the police didn't ask me or the staff or anybody!
Anyway he was in jail for 43 days. Meantime some of the regular park drinkers told us the police gave them tickets but said to them they could just tear them up because they'd never make it to court. Well, you can’t believe everything a drinker says, but so far they haven't had to pay and they're still out there drinking. What topped it for me was one time last summer, when some really loud and nasty teenagers set themselves up with a couple of cases of beer right by an outdoor play rehearsal, in broad daylight. I was helping with that play, and I told those teenagers to pipe down with their language and their beer. Well, one of them figured he could just swear at me, for a long time. "Don’t you tell me what to do, this is public space and I can do anything I f--ing want, you f--ing wh-re" sort of thing. That's what happens to anyone, it could even happen to you, Mr.Mayor, if you tried to say anything to that kind of teenager. Well, do you think we could get the police to come and move that fellow out? I left an hour and fifteen minutes after I'd called the police, and that fellow and his buddies left after me, and then still later the police came in with their cruiser and gave tickets to some other people. Now, what kind of "targeted community policing" is that?
There were enough times like that to finally make me understand that while our police are very good at coming to our aid when we are getting beaten up or robbed -- thank goodness! -- they haven't really figured out community policing. Now, if I'm right, giving them three million dollars instead of one million to do the same kind of thing as last summer is wasting money. The city should put that money back in the bank for now -- I hear we're overdrawn anyway. "Community Action Policing" needs to go back to the drawing board. Please, Mayor Lastman, invite Chief Fantino and his colleagues to rethink their approach. If they wanted to consult with us, we’d be so glad to tell them about what works and what doesn’t, in our neighbourhood. And maybe others in this city would like to do the same.
242 Havelock St.
Toronto, M6H 3B9.
Mr. Haroon Saddiqui,
Editorial Board Editor Emeritus,
The Toronto Star,
1 Yonge Street,
Toronto M5E 1E6.
Sometime in the next few weeks city council will be voting on a police request for $2.9 million extra for their budget, to police parks and schoolyards this summer. Back in February I sent this “open letter” on the subject to Mayor Lastman. He has not acknowledged the letter so far. It may have escaped his notice. 300 copies have been making the rounds in our neighbourhood, and more will be xeroxed, I’m sure. There is enough concern here about community policing that our group invited our new police chief to come and meet with us. He hasn’t replied either.
It seems to us that both the Mayor and the police chief may read the Star more readily than they read their mail. So we’d like to submit this letter to you, to see if you think the Star might print it as a feature article. The stories in the letter are only a part of our experiences with vandalism and intimidation in public space, but they might form the beginning of a broader discussion of this very important issue.
Secretary, Friends of Dufferin Grove Park.