LORINC: The human side of pedestrians vs. police

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

10 comments

  1. Nice piece – there are normally two (or more) sides to a story and this should make us all think about them a bit more.

  2. Terrific story, thanks for the perspective.

  3. While I am somewhat sympathetic to this cop’s dilema, I still think his approach was totally unacceptable. Perhaps the solution lies in breaking down the stigma surrounding therapy and getting these officers into treatment before they get outrageously aggressive. after all, we have no one to protect us from them.

  4. Yes, an important perspective. There are lots of us citizens doing less-wise things when going about, and I’m seeing a fair bit of clandestine texting etc. by drivers, which also doesn’t help.
    So with some understanding about the stresses, maybe we can nudge the police towards restraining the serial killer vs. the carism that this feels like.
    Driving is a privilege, not a right.

  5. I would suggest that any dialogue exchange that happens between someone in a car and someone outside the car will have a certain amount of raised voices, simply because of the barrier of the car itself.  Add to that the surprise by the listener that a stranger is yelling at them from a car, and it’s likely that the listener won’t actually hear what is being said, or is often the case they will mis-hear it, and assume it’s a negative comment.  In my opinion, that’s why you thought the cop was being more abrasive than was his intention.

  6. I can’t get past the unjust and unlawful police behaviour at the G20 in Toronto. That has permanently altered my view of the police.

  7. boo hoo. Someone from the most highest paid force in the country, who more than likely lives outside of TO and commutes in, has a ‘bad week’? What’d this punk think work was going to be like? Shooting robbers all day and receiving medals?

    Everyone has bad days. Does that make it okay to harass citizens and yell at them from our company car? Or to display our little man syndrome to passersby while on the clock?

    They are public servants. Burning rubber and revving the engine of a CITY VEHICLE does not constitute ‘serving and protecting’.

  8. We need to remember that 80% of TPS do not live in Toronto, and more than likely have never lived here.

    Toronto is simply “the Big Smoke” to them. A foul, dirty, and dangerous place full of gangbangers and coloured people. So much so that they need to be paid serious amounts to work here.

    Toronto is simply a hellhole where former D-students from the 905/519/705 have to drive down here every morning to lay down justice, fulfill their childhood “Dirty Harry” wet dream, puff out their chest, harass citizens; all before hightailing it back out again with their hefty paycheques provided by us.

  9. AB seems to have a real dislike for Toronto Police. Maybe when he grows up an matures into a real person he will realize that, yes, we are in fact all human. Even cops can have a bad day and say the wrong thing. At the end of the day, if the young cops (out of place) comments actually caused a person to be more atterntive at an intersection might it not have been worth the slight hurt feelings.

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