Toronto Life, July 1986 – A Voice From Inside 51 Division

Toronto Life, July 1986 – A Voice From Inside 51 Division


I work as a police constable in 51 Division, perhaps the most unique division in Metro Toronto. It is one of the worst areas in the city but also one of the best, because it runs from the lake to Summerhill Avenue in Rosedale and from the Don River to Jarvis Street , and it includes Regent Park an the Track areas. Anywhere south of Gerrard Street is really rough. It’s a well-kept secret. We have a lot of shootings. So many people get stabbed down there, and it seems as though every night I work someone gets robbed. It can be both frustrating and humorous working in these totally different areas, and then having to put up with all the hounds and hogs, the drunk old men and women on the streets.

What I’ve seen in the last six years working in uniform is enough for a lifetime for most people, but there are other coppers who’ve seen more. Uniform work is the hardest pat of policing, and because it is so difficult, especially in our division, guys try to get out of uniform to a special unit. Not only do we have to put up with constant bullshit on the streets down here, but also at the station. We are constantly reminded that anything less than total professionalism is not enough. But it is getting harder to be professional 100 per cent of the time.

One of our biggest problems at 51 Division is the manpower situation. Every shift I work there seems to be scout cars sitting in the station parking lot because there are not enough guys to fill them. Three years ago there were more than twenty (two per car) working nights, now there are a lot less after certain hours. They never admit why they do these things, but obviously it’s to save money. In the last couple of years very few coppers have been hired and we’re paying for it now.

In 51 we’re understaffed from twenty to thirty guys. It used to be that at night if you didn’t have a two-man car you wouldn’t go out and we not allowed to go out. Now we have to work one-man cars after certain hours of the night, and while there are nights that we can get by with one-man cars it is not too often. What has happened is that we’ve had to change our patterns a lot. We are constantly racing around to back one another up no matter how minor the radio call because we know minor calls in 51 Division can turn into serious calls very quickly.

Our biggest concern is our safety and the public’s. I can remember one night in January when my partner and I received a radio call to attend to a baby that was choking at Parliament and Shuter which is our patrol area, but we were on the other side of the division answering other calls due to the shortage of manpower. We went racing to the address like a bat out of hell and when we got there the baby had just started breathing and was coughing up vomit and we rushed her to Sick Kids with the parents. Everything turned out all right, the parents were happy, everybody was happy. This was one of the times we were lucky.

Our priority in police work is to protect but this is made more difficult when manpower is cut. The decision was made that there were too many policemen on the force and that we could get by with fewer guys, but where does it stop? The more policemen, the safe the community. Fifty-one Division is very busy and violent and from conversations with coppers in other divisions it seems that we have one of the highest crime rates in the city but we have one of the lowest number of officers to patrol the streets. Many of the same guys state they would never work in our division under the conditions that we have to deal with.

In 51, it seems that every time you turn around and arrest someone there’s a good chance that he’s got a gun on him. It appears very easy for bandits to buy guns on the streets or in bars in our division. The amount of knife use is also high. I remember a doctor telling me that he had just transferred to Wellesley Hospital and he couldn’t believe all the stabbing victims he was treating in emergency there.

We’re always in a situation where we’re on our guard, we’re never really relaxed, we always have to be ready for the unexpected. When we’re sitting in a police car we can go from a simple parking complaint one minute to someone being shot the next minute. I’ve had nights where I’ve had twenty radio calls with two or three gun calls in a row. There’s never a set pattern.

A large number of our calls are for domestic situations which can be very confusing and comical. I cannot remember the last domestic I went to where everyone in the house or apartment wasn’t drunk. And it’s hard to take someone’s domestic problems seriously when you are trying to hold them up because they are drunk. Its not unusual for a wife or husband to punch out their partner one day, and then see them the next day walking down the street arm in arm.

One of the hardest parts of our job is working the midnight shift which runs from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., for seven straight days. If we have court, we have to stick around the station until 10:00 a.m. After being in court all day we get home around 6 p.m., get a couple of hours of sleep then get back to the station at 11 p.m. to start all over again. In between this we get to see our families for about half an hour. I’ve gone a whole week with a grand total of sixteen hours sleep . And we’re expected to be 100 per cent, we have to be alert at all times with a few hours sleep.

Even though the midnight shift is hard it is also interesting because you get involved with the more unusual sides of police work. As soon as it gets dark people change. They act as if there’s a full moon every night or get into the booze.

In between shifts we really look forward to our days off, as long as we don’t have too much court but it seems like we have to go to court more and more. And the understaffing has made it hard to take the overtime from court days off. To work a proper shift you are expected to work at a top level and go out and make the pinches (arrests) and the more pinches you make the more court you get. It can get to to the point where guys work their asses off and because of the stress they just can’t do anymore. So they slow down and hope they are not the first one at the scene so they won’t have to make the arrest, then they won’t have to go to court – that goes on a lot – not wanting to stop as many people, not wanting to write as many summonses. But if we slow down, it’s going to be noticed and we’ll be told that we’re lazy.

A good part of the time we are only noticed for our failures and not for a job well done. I’ve seen coppers do great police work and not be recognized for it. I don’t know why it is that when our summonses or tags are below the quota we are told to improve the numbers, but guys are not always given recognition for good arrests.

We are evaluated on this quota system, the number of arrests we make, how we treat the public and how well we get along with other coppers, once a year. I know coppers who have done nothing but a great job in their whole career but the first time they screw up, no matter how minor the offence, they could be marked and all that does is screw up the morale. On the other hand I know guys who do nothing but write summonses and tags and that’s it. They’re so messed up. But if that’s what the system wants that’s what the system gets.

We are told that giving out summonses and tags is part of the policeman’s role and I accept that. I know we bring in money to the City with our tickets, that’s fine but let’s not make the number system such a large part of the policeman’s job. Let’s even it out a bit more. This would improve morale.

Even though the uniform branch is the backbone of the force there is a problem with communication between us and management. There is a feeling among uniform guys that we are on our own, with no help from anyone. We are working under conditions in which we are always looking over our shoulder for the danger that comes with the job, but there are also the complaints from citizens who aren’t satisfied with the way we handle jobs.

To make an arrest these days we have to be perfect, no mistakes are allowed, no matter how serious or minor the offence. Otherwise there’ s a chance we will lose the case. But ho wmany people are perfect all the time? In 51 it’s not unusual to arrest someone for a serious offence like robbery, sexual assault, aggravated assault or break and enter. Nowadays it appears that a lot of the bandits are as smart as the lawyers in regards to their rights and, for our own protection, we have to know our rights.

And there seems to be more people out there who think our job is only to beat people up and forget everything else, and they will stop at nothing to prove this. There are citizens who follow us around, checking up on minor procedures, but it’s too bad these people don’t put an equal effort in concerning themselves with crime victims.

These guys in 51 are beginning to believe we are guilty until proven innocent. Because we have to get into a struggle to arrest someone or have to wrestle with someone to stop an offence or have to use force to defend ourselves there are people who look upon us as all bad.

The Public Complaints Commission doesn’t help the situation. It affects morale. For one thing, the rules of evidence of criminal court don’t apply here. We are guilty until proven innocent. Why are we allowing this to go on? This laughs at our judicial system and makes a joke of our courts.

Policemen are starting to think, if I’m going to do my job and this is still going to happen, I’m not going to get involved in anything, and the public is going to suffer for it. The Public Complaints Commission should be abolished. Why have a separate court for us? We already have a police court and a police complaints bureau where people can take their complaints. These are there to say we’re guilty or innocent. But how many boards are there to say hey, you did a good job?

All these problems bring on a large amount of stress. It’s not cool to admit the job gets to you or that stress gets to you. We all tend to keep it inside and the result is burnout. We are all expected to have no feelings, nothing is supposed to get to us. No matter what you see or hear you have to forget it the second it happens. We are still considered machines. But there is stress if you have someone standing in front of you with a knife or a broken bottle just dying to split you open or if someone spits on you because of what you stand for, or if you have to carry a guys down three flights of stairs to a waiting stretcher and he’s bleeding all over you because he has just been shot four times or you have to tell someone his or her loved one has just passed away or if you have to rush through rush hour traffic as safe and fast as you can because a fellow officer needs assistance in a life or death situation or if you have to make sure your hat is on and your jacket is done up when the media shows up.

There isn’t a guy I work with who, if he really cares, doesn’t have some kind of stress. Even the ones that don’t give a shit because of all that crap suffer, they all suffer.

This is probably why the best times I have is when the guys on my shift get together after work, no matter what time, and go drinking to our secluded spots, just to get away from it all where no one can bug us. These are the times when we laugh at what goes on around us. Every one of us must have a sense of humor. We laugh at some very sick things because society wants us to put up with a lot of things and this is our release. Sometimes the only way to get around the bullshit is to laugh at it.

Some people will say that this all couldn’t be true and some coppers won’t admit it that it goes on, but what I’ve touched on is the tip of the iceberg. As an officer who works the streets of 51 I know what goes on there and I know it’s very similar in other divisions for the city.

But even with these problems I have a lot of pride in my uniform and I know that getting out is not the answer. The division grows on you, whether it’s the guys or the people. I still enjoy working in 51 and I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.

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