A disturbing incident came to my attention yesterday.
A friend of mine, let’s call him Bruce, is a keen wildlife photographer. Bruce was in Lions Park by the Humber footbridge last Thursday, intent on photographing an elusive heron. Four young men walked by and two of the men got chatting to Bruce and eventually asked him if he would take their photograph and email it to them. As the two and Bruce gathered around the camera to see the image, there was a sudden skidding sound as six police officers on bikes (from the TAVIS program) swooped down and surrounded them. They asked ‘What’s going on?’ and searched one of the young men and his backpack, finding a tiny quantity of marijuana. He was arrested and placed in handcuffs. Meanwhile, the other young man became indignant at this breach of Charter rights and voluntarily stripped to his underwear in frustration and to demonstrate that he had nothing to hide.
The attention then turned to Bruce who was asked by one of the officers ‘What exactly are you photographing?’ Bruce felt intimidated by the officer, the question, and indeed the whole incident – and feared for his own personal safety if he said anything or intervened to protest the treatment of the young man. He had the impression that this was a way of filling an arrest quota. As if the six officers weren’t enough to keep order, a seventh arrived, also on a bike. Bruce beat a hasty retreat.
Apparently, possession of small amounts of marijuana is now treated as a serious crime and no longer regarded as a minor violation. No doubt this will be thrown out of court in two or three years when the judge finally hears of this breach of the young man’s right not to be subjected to arbitrary search and seizure. In the meantime, this charge will hang over the young man’s head.
The headline to this story could have been ‘Armed Gang Intimidates Park Visitors’. Although slightly misleading, it is the absolute truth from the viewpoint of the people involved. Readers might understand the story better with the additional information that the only white people in this incident were on bikes.
What to make of this? Is such behaviour acceptable on the part of police officers? Is this racial profiling? Do we know the whole story? – probably not but the optics are not good. Would young white men have been subjected to this treatment? I doubt it very much.
The TAVIS program, in addition to reducing major crime and increasing safety is designed to enhance public trust and confidence and build relationships. It is hard to see what the harassment of these young men has accomplished other than inducing fear and mistrust.
When I was growing up, a long time ago, police officers walked the beat on their own and built relationships with business owners and people they met along the way every day – not just during a barbecue and photo op. Not being in groups, individual officers could spread far and wide, covering a large area in each shift. Their presence was enough to detect and deter much criminal activity and to be a set of eyes and ears on the street. Nowadays, such policing is considered old-fashioned and perhaps requires a modicum of courage from the participants that today’s police academy graduates are no longer willing or able to provide. Evidently it’s OK to ask firefighters to put their lives on the line but police officers need to be in a posse in order to feel safe.
As Weston Web has pointed out, crime in Weston is no higher in here than elsewhere in Toronto. We live in a safe community where rates of crime continue to drop. To receive an influx of police officers during the summer was a fabulous opportunity to build bridges and humanize the face of policing. Tragically, incidents like this one destroy any good will that might have been created.