At lunch hour yesterday, I was standing next to a herd of teenagers, waiting to cross St. Clair West at Bathurst. As usual, I positioned myself just a few inches off the sidewalk, ready to do the pedestrian equivalent of the jack-rabbit start. Just as the light changed, a police cruiser pulled up to the corner, looking to turn right. The officer’s sight seemed to be obstructed by the crowd waiting to cross, and I could tell he was straining to see if he could make a clean turn.
Suddenly, the passenger side window rolled down and he leaned over. “Do you care about your life?” he barked. He ordered me not to stand on the road. I replied that I was on the sidewalk, just at the edge of the curb cut. But the officer didn’t seem to be interested in debating the point. He accelerated sharply around the corner, fast enough, in fact, to screech his tires, as if to punctuate his warning.
I turned to the kids and said this is the sort of cop behaviour that is more typically directed at teenagers rather than middle-aged men. And with that, I carried on, reconfirmed in my belief that some police officers could do a much better job with how they deal with the general public, and young people in particular.
Moments later, I noticed his car parked down the block: he had stopped to collect his pressed uniforms from a dry cleaner. I figured I would approach him and very politely make the point that there are friendlier ways to communicate an otherwise legitimate warning about pedestrian safety.
“Do you have a moment, or do you have to get somewhere quickly,” I asked.
He said he had time. The officer was a young man, earnest and intense in the way new cops can be. I quickly, and deferentially, made my suggestion.
“Hold on, hold on,” he replied impatiently, starring at me hard. “Do you know what kind of day I’ve had?” He told me he’d had to deal with someone trying to leap off a building and someone else who’d jumped into Lake Ontario. In the last week, he continued, there had been a string of pedestrian fatalities, one after the other.
Suddenly, it became clear that what initially came across as the stereotypical arrogance from behind the wheel was, in fact, job stress, and not just the garden-variety sort. This is the sort of stress few of us ever have to encounter.
Increasingly, he told me, still testy but now less confrontational, people walking are on their phones or listening to their iPods, and not paying attention to the cars. Meanwhile, drivers seem to care less and less about pedestrians. So when he arrives at an accident scene, with the bodies strewn across the road and the driver racked with remorse, the cop is the one who gets to riffle around the victim’s clothing to find the person’s ID. Inside those wallets, he said, is where one finds the snapshots of the family members who don’t yet know the sad news.
It must be a shattering experience.
(I have a friend on the force who once told me that traffic cops know that if they arrive at an accident scene and the victim is moments away from death, you never look them in the eye, because that image that will haunt you forever. He, like many traffic cops, has had bouts of post-traumatic shock disorder.)
We parted company on a handshake, having made our respective points. But my feeling was that this young officer had already seen things that will linger in his psyche for many years to come. So while the manner of delivery left something to be desired, I came away from our brief encounter with a more complete understanding of what fuels `cop attitude.’ Yes, some do present themselves in an unnecessarily authoritarian manner. But often, there’s more to the story than meets the ear.
Indeed, at a time when our mayor unapologetically reads behind the wheel and encourages drivers to view cyclists and pedestrians as enemy combatants, I’d suggest that the `war on the car’ may have inflicted plenty of collateral damage on the men and women who must confront the carnage after the battle has moved on.
photo by William James: Toronto Archives: Series 1244, Item 722