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A Lesson in the Law

A Police Officer Shoves A Park Staff Person Citing Interference

In the middle of May, a park staff person saw that the police were questioning some young park users. The staff person went over to observe. One of the youth had been seen smoking a marijuana cigarette, and so he and his friends were i.d.'d and searched. Since there was no additional weed on any of them and none showed any charges on the police computer system, they were not arrested. (Possession of a small amount of marijuana does not currently result in a criminal conviction.)

However, the three police officers involved in questioning the youth were not happy that our staff person, and a few additional park users, stayed nearby to watch. They told the staff person to leave, and when he did not, one of the officers pushed him. The officer said that if the park staff did not go away, he would be charged with obstruction.

Since park staff generally make it their business to attend to any disturbance in the park, and since they also know a lot of the people who come here, ignoring visits from the police is not really an option. However, no one wants to be arrested for obstruction. What to do?

Once again, we found help among the hockey players. (Hockey players at the park seem to be an endless source of park friends.) Jane Price, president of the Friends of Dufferin Grove Park, had heard that one of the regular Wednesday night ball-hockey players was a criminal lawyer named Peter Bawden, who has published and article on the use of "obstruction" charges. Jane called him up and he agreed to come to the park early before one of the ball hockey games, to meet with the park staff. He told the staff how to behave to make sure they were not obstructing police. He said, "make sure you don't stand behind an officer - understandably, that makes them nervous. Don't get any closer than two meters. [Our park staff person was clear on both of those counts.] Reassure the officer, repeatedly if necessary, that you will not get in their way. Explain that it's the practice of park staff to attend at any difficulty, and take along your clipboard. Don't say much at all unless you're asked, and then be very polite. [Our park staff aced that one as well.] It is the legal right of any citizen and certainly of park staff, to observe any actions of police. The charge of obstruction can only be laid if a person actually gets in the way of police to prevent them from carrying out their investigation, or if a person counsels a suspect to resist arrest. As long as you're only observing, you are breaking no law. "

This was nice to hear. And over the years we have found that the presence of an observer, when police come to the park, seems to help, in reducing (slightly) the random requests for I.D. which are frowned on in our democratic country, and putting a lid on the escalation of incidents. In the case of our park staff, watching also allows them to keep tabs on people who might be a genuine danger in our park. Direct observation of arrests is important because if there IS, later on, a conviction for a crime and the sentence includes court order banning the person from the park, park staff are never informed of such an order. (One of the many bits of slippage in the justice system.)

Peter Bawden also suggested it's always good to have a second person along when observing an incident (not more than that). That's because, when Jutta Mason made a complaint in May 2003 - she saw three bicycle police interrogating a black man near the rink house because he was talking on a cell phone a few days after some car thefts at the mall -- the police recall of the incident was very different than Jutta's recall. So if you are in the park and you see one of the staff, or a friend of the park, standing and watching such an incident, and you feel like coming over and watching too, that would be a help. When our staff person was pushed by the officer, there were several families watching with their children, and this resulted in some constructive conversation afterwards.

And if, despite all attempts to be respectful and careful, a staff person or a friend of the park is charged with obstruction for observing police incidents in the park, Peter Bawden says he'll defend them. For free. It seems that some lawyers get a little hot about citizens' rights in a democracy.

Parks and Recreation department policy on Staff/Police relations here (pdf) >>

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Content last modified on May 19, 2008, at 12:09 PM EST