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posted August, 2003

Racial Profiling Follow-up II

One evening in May, Jutta Mason watched as three police officers questioned a young black man who was walking along the sidewalk, talking on a cell phone, beside the rink house. On the basis of what she observed, she wrote a letter the next day to Chief Julian Fantino, of the Toronto Police Service (also posted in the park). She wrote that it seemed to her the officers were "fishing" when they questioned this young man, and quoted one of the police officers, who had told her, as she stood there watching, to "go hug a tree". The letter resulted in a request for Jutta to come to Fourteen Division and be interviewed. This interview, which was taped, lasted over an hour and resulted in a formal police report complete with cover page, index and appendices (available at the rink house for anyone who wants to see it). In defence of the apparently random police questioning of the young black man, the report cited (1) a statistical increase in car thefts in Fourteen Division, (2) the fact that car thieves tend to use cell phones, and (3) that as they observed the young man, he changed direction from westbound to eastbound (actually walking back up the sidewalk toward the police).

The report also suggested that anyone who, like Jutta, stops to observe police questioning could be charged with obstructing police, a charge carrying a possible jail sentence of two years less a day. In addition, the document reported as fact what the officers recalled about the event. Their version contradicted what Jutta had said both in her letter to Chief Fantino, and in the taped interview. In effect, it suggested that she must be a liar or a meddlesome fool, or both.

This is another unfortunate episode in our regrettably lengthy history of unhelpful relations with Fourteen Division. Our attempts at building a working relationship first ran into trouble ten years ago, when we wanted to change the threatening, uncivil atmosphere at the rink house in winter. The police told the park supervisor then that he couldn't count on them to help park staff enforce the city's own public-space by-laws. As a result the city's park supervisor had to make a contract with Intelligard, a private security company, for one winter, until the rink problems began to resolve.

Attempts to meet with individual community police officers, to explain what we wanted to do at the park, were largely ignored. (We can remember the frustration of waiting at the rink house at some of the scheduled meeting times and having the officers never arrive, nor even call to cancel.) When the CAP program gave police extra millions to give closer attention to public space, the result was more random questioning of youth (mainly but not only black) who were sitting at picnic tables, but continuing slow (or no) response to calls by either park staff or park users reporting park drunkenness or threatening behaviour.

A 1999 police-community partnership grant for $22,000 from the provincial Ministry of the Solicitor General had many good, long-term safety effects in the park, except that the final report had to regretfully conclude that no partnership had been established between police and the Friends of Dufferin Grove Park. The same year, a charge resulting from group vandalism in the playground was lost in the detective's drawer and never came to court. (The list of missed connections is long and it's archived on the park web site.)

Even major incidents had uncertain responses. This newsletter was started the month after a vicious public beating-and-kicking (of one man, in the head) incident by a group at the basketball court in September 2000, watched by many witnesses. 911 calls brought one cruiser (and an ambulance for the victim), followed by a denial, the next day, that the incident had happened at all. So many people had seen or heard of the kicking/ beating that a neighbourhood petition was sent to the Fourteen Division superintendent asking for clarification. It turned up the information that the kicking was to settle an issue between basketball players, and that since the victim (who was black, as were many of the attackers) did not want to lay charges, there would be no follow-up. And there wasn't.

Most recently, when a man with two pit bulls was threatening park users, police did not arrive at the park until 45 minutes after the first call for help - not until the pit bulls had attacked a second dog and its owner and all the Havelock Street porches were full of people who heard the screams. Then there were three cruisers, fast, and the man was arrested on a charge of assault with a weapon, but the damage had been done.

There is a problem of responsiveness to public concerns here. Discrediting people who speak up about it, or suggesting that they might be subject to arrest, are not good ways for police to address this problem. A more constructive connection between police and our community would be good for everyone. We urge Chief Fantino to actively promote such a connection. We are ready to begin whenever there can be a real conversation.

One stipulation, though - our community includes young men who are black. Obviously, every person who is a danger to others should be challenged, in court if necessary. But merely walking along the street and talking on a cell phone, during a statistical fluctuation in car thefts, should not result in being stopped by police. The young man who was questioned while walking by the park in May must have thought that too. On that evening, he smiled and nodded as police pressed him for his identification papers. But eventually he politely asserted his legal right to leave without showing his i.d., and walked away.

When he had left, Jutta stayed and argued with the police about their "fishing." They maintained that she was ignorant of the real dangers of living in this area and being in the park, and that if she had any opinions about their procedures she could keep them to herself or get them off her chest at a meeting. As this tedious and certainly fruitless argument was still going on, the young man came walking back. He shook Jutta's hand - a risky gesture in that situation - and thanked her, and then left again. Jutta felt ashamed at his courage and at the history that may have prompted his handshake. She was glad, however, that the laws of this country do not forbid any person from standing and observing while police question another person. If the observer is an older middle-class white woman, good citizenship is not as risky. She recommends it to others in her situation.

Content last modified on May 19, 2008, at 08:58 PM EST