Sewell: Tickets to a police gravy train?

By John Sewell –

Twelve years ago Downtown seemed awash in youths who would wash your car window whether you wanted it or not and then demand payment. Squeegee kids, they were called.

The Mike Harris government had begun cutting back the money that could fund programs for youths and that intensified the problem, but Harris thought the way to deal with this kind of behaviour was to make it illegal. The Safe Streets Act was passed, and it was directed at people who were asking for money in a public place, and doing it in an aggressive or threatening manner.

Squeegy kids are a fad that is long gone from our streets, but the Safe Streets Act is still here. Police use it now as their justification for going after people begging on the street, and they issue tickets to street people, of which we have more than our fair share Downtown given there isn’t enough affordable or inexpensive housing for the many poor and confused people in our society.

Like parking tickets, these have a set price you can pay if you don’t want to go to court. For the Safe Streets Act, the price is set at $150, an amount far above anything a street person can afford to pay. So they don’t pay, and they hardly ever go to court. The cop who issued the ticket goes to court, gives uncontradicted evidence about what happened, a conviction is registered and a fine is levied by the Justice of the Peace for $250 or more.

The cycle is repeated and repeated and repeated. Some street people have received 10 or 15 tickets in a 3- or 4-month period. The outstanding court fines can lead to thousands of dollars for an individual, and they can also be picked up and put into jail for non-payment.

Toronto police issue a lot of tickets under the Safe Streets Act—more than 15,500 last year. Most of these are issued in the Downtown areas. Officers in 51 Division (at Front and Parliament) issued more than 4,000 such tickets last year; 52 Division (Dundas and University) issued 1,200; 55 Division (east of the Don River), 1,200; and 14 Division (west of Ossington), more than 2,000.

Many street people suffer from mental-health issues and in any case they have no money, so of course they beg. The tickets don’t stop them panhandling and the tickets don’t give the city or provincial governments any revenue.

The tickets end up clogging the courts with minor matters that often lead to putting the offenders in jail for a month or two (costing $162 per prisoner a night), at which point they are released back on to the street to continue to try to generate funds.

Who benefits from these tickets? Certainly not the public, which pays the cost of the courts and the police, and gets nothing useful in return.

Individual police officers get a benefit from these tickets: every time they go to court, they get paid four hours at time and a half, even if they spend just 15 minutes in court. That’s more than $150 each time they show up at court, and of course that is public money.

Maybe tickets have been issued just because an officer could write it out knowing he or she could get paid for court time, even though the person wasn’t begging in an aggressive manner. We don’t know because those who get the tickets hardly ever go to court.

Maybe it makes no sense to have police issuing tickets under this legislation. Maybe it would be less expensive all around if police talked to those individuals who seemed to be acting aggressively and told them to move on. It would be just as effective, although the cop wouldn’t get the reward for going to court.

Some people might say the officer has no choice but to enforce the law, but we know that laws can be enforced with discretion. Cops in British Columbia exercise their discretion in cases involving marijuana, and rarely make arrests for possession of small amounts. Hardly anyone is given a speeding ticket for driving at 120 km/h even though 100 km/h is the maximum permitted.  Most people see these restraints as smart policing.

Smart policing Downtown would see police stop issuing tickets under the Safe Streets Act except in extreme cases.

John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto.