Police value plummets when communities are afraid of them

In the early evening of Feb. 11, the blue tumbling mats and plastic kinder-gym sets in the gymnasium of the Alexandra Park Community Centre were pushed aside to make way for a press conference and community meeting. Before a few TV cameras, one or two print reporters and an anxious crowd of about 75 residents of the Atkinson Co-op housing project in the Alexandra Park neighbourhood just west of Spadina between Dundas and Queen, Donna Harrow, executive director of the community centre, outlined allegations of a wave of beatings of local youth by police. “As a community, as a family, we feel that this is absolutely unacceptable,” she said. “We feel as if the community is under siege.”

A 17-year-old local resident of the neighbourhood, who cannot be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice Act (formerly the Young Offenders Act), read from handwritten notes in a calm voice about an incident he claimed had taken place the previous Saturday. “Around 9:30am, there was a breaking into my house. The person came in through the living room window.” He was sleeping in a chair in his bedroom, he said, while his girlfriend was asleep on his bed. The man was dressed all in black, wearing a ski mask that partially obscured his face. “I looked up at this man who I recognized as a police officer from 14 Division … then I turned onto my right side. Then the police officer said ‘I’m sick and tired of you fucking P.O. guys. You beat up a cop last night’ [P.O. is short for Project Originals, a gang police say plagues the neighbourhood. The young man denies he is part of any gang]. I turned my head to the officer and said, ‘Yeah? I was home all last night. That’s why you can watch me sleep.'” Then, the young man said, the intruder kicked him in the face and pepper-sprayed him. He said he was kicked several times and hit in the kneecap with a nightstick, then kicked again in the face while he was crawling around on the floor.

After visiting the hospital that morning, he said, he went to a police station with his mother and girlfriend to formally report the incident. After giving a videotaped statement, he was arrested for assaulting a police officer.

Toronto Police media relations later confirmed that the young man’s allegations are under investigation, but the force does not comment on ongoing investigations of police officers. The charges against the young man — in connection with the beating of a police officer outside a neighbourhood coffee shop in early February — are moving through the court system. He was picked up for violating the conditions of his bail by associating with presumed gang members. The young man denies any participation in the assault.

What is clear, and as troubling as any one incident of violence, is that many community leaders and residents believe him, and are afraid of the police.

Following his statement at the meeting, Harrow and Olu Quamina, a youth worker at the community centre, told the crowd about three other alleged incidents of violence by police against young men they say happened around the same time. Then the community members in the audience attempted to address the situation. Longtime residents expressed concern that nothing would be done. Others were angrily worried about police racism.

More than a month later, Harrow says the situation between the police and the community remains dire. “After the news conference, the assault on youth has stopped, but what has happened is that police officers are still coming around nightly.” She says all young people are stopped and searched, and describes episodes she’s witnessed as police harassment. “The residents feel there is a sense of martial law happening in the community. They come around and these kids can’t be just walking from one place to another. [The police] stop them, they search them, they go to their homes and insist on being let in without a warrant because they say they want to see kids who have a curfew … they hassle the kids, they hassle the parents, the whole community at this point is scared.” Quamina says he’s been walking young men home from the community centre because they’re afraid to go alone.

A group of 16-year-olds of various races reluctantly agree to talk to eye on the condition that no identifying information appears in the paper. They say they’re afraid of retaliation by the police for talking to a reporter.

They tell stories of friends they say have been beaten by the police. They deny they are members of a gang, or that they know anyone who is. They say they can expect to be stopped once or twice on any given day by police, asked for identification and searched for weapons and drugs.

“If I’m walking home, minding my own business, they roll up on me and, you know, harass me, blah, blah, blah. Even if I have nothing on me, I’m afraid they’re going to try to put something on me, because it’s their word against mine,” says one young man, an African-Canadian in jeans and a basketball jersey. “The way they want it is they don’t want to see us at all. They just want us to disappear … if you’re walking to the store, if you’re coming back with a bag of groceries, no matter what it is, no matter where, they want to harrass you.” He says that even during routine ID checks, he can expect a police officer to radio in for several extra officers to back him up. “When they stop one person, it’s like they’ve spotted bin Laden … officers just start coming out of nowhere, cars blocking off traffic. People start gawking, watching the show — say that’s a person who was maybe going to give you a job? He’ll think, ‘No, I seen him getting stopped yesterday, he’s a criminal.’ It don’t look good.

“You don’t feel safe where you live. That’s not right,” he says. “Where you live should be your safe place. We’re scared, not even on the streets but in our homes with the doors locked.”

Beuna Livingston lived in the Atkinson Co-op from 1997 to 2000. She now works part-time at the community centre as an early-years facilitator for young mothers. She sums up a sentiment echoed by many in the neighbourhood. “The strangest thing is that normally, people would be afraid of the bad elements in the community, correct? In this instance … they’re afraid of the police.”

And there are “bad elements” in the neighbourhood. Concerns about safety, the drug trade and gang violence were one of the major reasons the housing development’s residents converted to a co-op in 1999.

Staff Sergeant Glenn Holt, who works in 14 Division’s community relations, disagrees with characterizations of police activity in the area as harassing. “I would say it’s probably not an accurate characterization of our tactics over there,” he says. “There has been an increased presence in that area — not specifically that community, but that community and area — but it has more to do with the number of robberies and statistical stuff that’s taking place over in that vicinity.” He says that whatever people in the neighbourhood believe, there is a gang called Project Originals in the community, and points out that Chief Julian Fantino has made combatting gang violence a priority. Holt says that police are in a bind when it comes to serving neighbourhoods suffering from high crime rates. “There’s always two sorts of thoughts out there in the community … the one side is, you have people saying that we’re in their communities and they view it as harassment. On the other hand, you have, from the same community, in the same meetings, people saying, ‘We never see a policeman on our street.’ And their request is constantly for things like street patrols and things like higher visibility,” Holt says. “So even within a community — and I’m not talking about this one specifically — there’s these diametrically opposed requests for the police.”

So how can a policing strategy be useful if it makes law-abiding residents afraid of the police?

Councillor Olivia Chow, who’s both the city’s youth advocate and the representative for Alexandra Park’s ward, says that it’s common and troubling that youth in “at-risk” communities hold a dim view of the police. She points to a 2002 survey of youth in four low-income communities — Regent Park, Parkdale, Malvern and Jane/ Finch. “The No. 1 fear that they have … [along with drug activity] about safety is police intimidation and harassment.” The report shows that, among young males in those communities, 54.4 per cent felt that police treatment of youth had a “medium-high impact” on youth safety. By comparison, only 42.2 per cent rated gang violence in the same way.

“If the young people feel that way,” Chow says, “if that’s the perception, then whether or not the perception is true is not even the point. It means they’re not going to tell the police what’s happening if they feel there are activities they should report, or things that they know are going on. They’re not going to tell the police if they don’t feel the police can be trusted.”

Harrow says this is the sense she’s getting from residents of the Alexandra Park neighbourhood. “[People] are saying things to me like, ‘Why call the police? They’re not going to do anything anyway.’ They’re not going to call them.” Harrow says this will make the legitimate problems that police should be dealing with worse because the community won’t co-operate.

“People are asking why it is that we have to go through this, is this what happens in other neighbourhoods?” Harrow says. “They’re just wanting all this to stop.”

Published April 1, 2004 in Eye Weekly