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After the police left the park on that dark and windy night, and I had cleared the toys out of the sand pit, I cycled back up to where the three teenagers were. I asked them if they had any idea why the police had approached them. They said, no. One of them told me that once he had been sitting in our park with his friends when the undercover police suddenly arrived and put on a raid. "They were coming toward us swinging their batons," he said. "They didn't hit any of us, and they didn't end up charging anybody. But it was a really violent feeling." I asked him when this happened, and he said, without having to stop and calculate, six years ago.
Then the three of them got in their car and drove away.
Quite a few new families have moved into the neighbourhood recently, many with young children. Those toddlers will grow up and become teenagers too. Their parents may be wise to lay the groundwork now, to encourage our local police to stay within the bounds of legality. Skin colour makes a difference, of course, and in our park the teenagers of colour are often the first to be questioned. But these teenagers where white. So, parents, you have a stake in seeking police responsiveness to our community - all of it. For more background, and to post your helpful ideas, you might like to look at the "park safety" section of our park web site.
It was a dark and windy night…..when Jutta Mason went to the park to put away the sandpit play-shovels on Thursday September 12, at about 10.30 p.m. The wind was rather warm, but there were only a few people in the park - Carol Kidd walking her dog Oscar, and two young guys and one girl sitting at a picnic table, quietly talking. And there was a police car with search lights mounted on top, driving all over the park grass in slow loops and circles. When their lights picked out the three teenagers, the police drove over and pulled out their note pads. Jutta cycled over. During the years she's been involved in the park, Jutta has often seen the police asking teenagers for their i.d., when they're just sitting at a table and talking. Canadian law does not permit police to stop persons who are not engaged in any illegal activity, and ask them to identify themselves, unless a person fits a description for a police manhunt. Sitting on a bench at the park in a group is not an illegal activity. But if you're a teenager, you may be questioned.
People who came to Canada as immigrants from police states are often a bit sensitive about civil rights. Jutta, whose family left Germany ten years after time when civil rights were cancelled (that is, during the period between 1933 and 1945), gets worried about police stretching the law by asking for names when there has been no offense. And so whenever she sees this happening, she cycles over and just watches, as a citizen.
The two officers took down all the teenagers' names and addresses and consulted their mobile i.d. computer for possible criminal links. Jutta said that she felt it was not proper for police to take names when there was no offense. One officer told her to go to law school and then come and talk to them again. He then asked whether Jutta might have stolen the bike she was riding.
The other officer, with less temper, explained that they were merely following the orders of their staff sergeant from Fourteen Division. He said that the order to question young or suspicious-looking people had come because of residents' complaints about how dangerous our park is.
This sounds like a generic excuse. Our park seems remarkably safe. But if the officers are being ordered to drive around the park and take names by the staff sergeant, what are they to do? They have follow those orders.
But here's an idea: could these officers be diverted to a more pressing neighbourhood problem? Last year, two residents went door to door and collected a large number of signatures asking for action on dangerous driving. Some St.Mary's students and their friends, during lunch and after school, were racing and doing car stunts on Gladstone and Havelock streets and around the park. There was a meeting with the school and police, but no follow-up. St.Mary's principal Tony DeSousa submitted license numbers of the dangerous drivers and pledged to go to court if necessary, but the police took no action on these numbers. A promised poster from police, outlining the possible civil and criminal penalties for the drivers, never materialized. After four follow-up requests, we stopped asking. The problem has not improved this fall (and the people who circulated the petition finally gave up, put their house up for sale, and moved away). Could the police divert some of their considerable manpower to this pressing neighbourhood issue, and away from tracking down teenagers sitting in the park?
Residents who would like to recommend this alternative course of action to our police force, can call Fourteen Division Superintendent Paul Gottschalk at 416/808-1414. And residents who would like to reassure Staff Sgt. Glenn Holt of the Community Response Division about safety concerns at our park, and remind him about civil rights concerns, can reach him at 416/808-1500. It's good for the police to get community responses from citizens; it keeps them in touch.
On February 1, an attempt to arrest a stolen-car suspect ended in the driver being fatally shot by police while still in the car, at the corner of Havelock St. and Bloor Street. A two-block area of our neighbourhood was sealed off for more than 12 hours by order of the Special Investigation Unit. The person who died is John Menga, a man in his twenties. It turned out he was known to many of the youth who use the park. They called him a "legend," in a negative way: he was known for "punking off" (extorting money from) young people regularly, a loner, not part of any gang, but scary. Older kids told younger ones, "watch out or John Menga will come and beat you up with a baseball bat."
It may be that an intuition about the driver's lack of sense or restraint made the police officers fearful enough that they shot him dead. And yet: John Menga had a wife and two small children. The hydro pole at the end of Havelock, where this sad drama was played out, was wrapped around with flowers for two weeks.
Then the rains came and most of the flowers fell down and were taken away, until only a small bunch of white roses remained wedged to the pole.
Being a bully and a small-time thief does not normally carry a death sentence, and neither does stealing cars. But there has been very little public reaction to this death. We asked many young people at the park: do you know anyone who regrets that John Menga is gone? So far, the answer was always - no. Such a sad answer, but there it is.
In the meantime, there are unanswered questions. Not the least of these is whether car chases or shooting at people for stealing cars is worth it if people die -- either non-involved people who are hit during a chase or by bullet crossfire, or police officers, or the car thieves themselves. Do we value our cars that much?
Posted February, 2002
Sunday January 20 was a hugely busy day at the rink. There were two birthday campfire groups as well as the usual crowd at the rink clubhouse. When the birthday campfires were over and the people had left, a big wind came up. It must have fanned a few left-over sparks back into life at the big campfire circle near the basketball court, and so a leftover piece of firewood was re-ignited. Three teenagers without much to do came by as it was getting dark, and had an idea. They took that small piece of firewood and stuck it inside a hole in one of the big logs that serves as a fire circle bench. None of this was observed by the busy rink staff.
By coincidence, Sgt.Bob Guglick of the Community Response Unit of Fourteen Division Toronto Police Service came by around 6 p.m. to say hello to the rink staff. Just as he entered the clubhouse, some dog walkers came in the opposite door to report large flames coming out of the fire circle log. Sgt. Guglick and the rink staff went over to look, and then the sergeant returned to his cruiser to get a fire extinguisher. But in the meantime someone else had called the fire department, and they came with their big fire truck with sirens going. The staff at first thought that this was what the sergeant meant when he said he was getting a fire extinguisher. Some fire extinguisher! In the end, the fire truck pulled up right beside the big log and hosed it down with a lot of water. Sgt. Guglick saw the three young guys leaving, and spoke to them about their foolishness. He said afterwards - sometimes you just have to tell them YOU KNOW, and that's enough. We agree.
But every cloud has a silver lining. One little boy at the rink was unhappy and tired and crying. His parents couldn't cheer him up. Then the zamboni came out to clean the ice, and that got his interest. Then right after that, the fire truck pulled up. What a rescue from grief: two of his favourite trucks within ten minutes.
When Supt.Gottschalk was first transferred to Fourteen Division almost two years ago, he called to say he wanted to visit the park, to find out a bit more about our neighbourhood. Before he could make it, various problems arose with the police, including a serious public beating on the basketball court that got very little investigation. Since then we have requested a meeting a few more times, but nothing happened. Then, out of the blue, last week, Supt.Gottschalk called to say he was coming to visit the rink on Tuesday January 8. This time it was really a close call. The coffee was on, the Solicitor-General crime prevention grant report was laid out, the picture display was set up - but then 10 minutes before the expected arrival, the superintendent's secretary called to cancel.
But since we got that close, we think the visit will definitely take place, maybe even soon.