It’s as if Toronto has been gaslit by its own police force.
Gaslighting is a particular kind of manipulation where people are made to question themselves and their own perceptions of reality.
Torontonians, downtown or suburb, know there has been a culture of motorist impunity here for years when it comes to obeying traffic laws. The pedestrian knows it. The cyclist knows it. The driver, both the reckless and the conscientious, knows it too.
What Torontonians knew already was finally confirmed last week in a report released by Chief Mark Saunders to the Toronto Police Services Board that admitted there has been a dramatic reduction in traffic enforcement, with no dedicated officers since 2013. During the same time police data shows crashes spiked.
Torontonians knew the police largely gave up on enforcement because they live in this city and can see the lawlessness with their own eyes.
Stand at any corner, anytime, anywhere, and you will see drivers run red lights immediately. Ride a streetcar and you will watch drivers barrel past open doors. Narrow residential streets are speedways. Stop signs are optional. Crosswalks? Use at your own risk, because there’s little risk to drivers if they blow through.
There is even a crowdsourced Twitter hashtag, #NearMissToronto, continuously collecting stories of lawless drivers; and look at all those pathetic “slow down” signs. It’s all proof of a problem, a plague, yet we have been told by police there is no culture of impunity.
As little as two months ago, Saunders was on CBC Metro Morning downplaying the effects of less police enforcement. On Twitter, as deaths and grievous, life-changing injuries continued to add up for months, individual police officers would routinely lecture pedestrians and cyclists about their behaviour when asked about lack of enforcement, as if drivers aren’t the ones operating a machine with deadly force. City data also shows pedestrians usually aren’t at fault when they get hit.
That’s gaslighting, and it’s as enraging as it is scandalous because lives potentially could have been saved.
Ironically, every day there is an army of parking enforcement officers out on the streets ticketing cars. Forget to pay for parking and you can expect to get a ticket. The same is not true for activity that puts lives at risk. Are moving cars too much work to catch?
Alok Mukherjee, the former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board from 2005 to 2015, pointed out this week that the board asked for Saunders’ report in July 2018 at the request of the city, itself responding to citizen pressure, but it took the chief over a year to respond though the board’s own rules require reports of this nature be completed in six months or less.
It’s shocking to think that police brass down to rank and file officers could see what was happening on our streets and not be outraged themselves. Police responded to crashes after they happened, so they saw first-hand the carnage and the impact it had on the victims and the wider effect on people who love them, like the family of Celeste Jones, who held a vigil where Jones, the victim of a hit-and-run on Sheppard Avenue East, was hit to try to get drivers to slow down and pay attention.
Yet police still didn’t start to enforce the law, to do their job. There was no hue and cry from within the force to change policy direction. There was no sense of urgency.
Saunders’ report calls for the city to provide $1 million to fund a “Vision Zero enforcement team” of two shifts and a handful of officers working overtime. After years of individuals and advocacy groups demanding the police do their duty, this is expected to be enough? Why can’t it simply be part of the job, built into the day-to-day work of all beat officers? See an offence, do your duty.
If this kind of gaslighting sounds familiar it’s because there’s a pattern. Recall that for years people in the Church-Wellesley village were telling police that men were going missing but they were waved away, told there was nothing going on, that men weren’t being targeted. Bruce McArthur proved that what people saw and sensed was gravely true: there was a serial killer at work in the village, but the chief even later blamed the community for not helping police.
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Certainly drivers bear much responsibility here, as do the politicians who continually watered down the city’s “Vision Zero” attempts to reduce collisions, but the police abandoning traffic enforcement is a contemptuous dereliction of duty.
The meaningless “To Serve and Protect” decals on police cruisers should be peeled off: the police did not have our back, though their own data shows there was and is a problem. For that, the chief, and anyone else who could have changed course, must resign.