Thursday, June 18, 2009

Culture: Policing and Livability

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On an hour of today's On Point radio show from WBUR in Boston, there was a lot of hand-wringing by the United States citizens on the show questioning why few US cities had made a number of most-livable lists in various magazines and web sites. The answer had to be in the criteria used, and in several cases it was revealed that statistics for violent and other crimes had been weighted heavily. Even the safest of US cities fares relatively poorly in these statistics, so it was not surprising that they fared similarly poorly in livability.

Indeed, while following night-time equipment moves recently, several of us remarked that there were few urban places where we could feel so safe in the middle of the night as on Toronto's waterfront. Granted, there were plenty of police escorts on the route itself, but many of us thought nothing of leaving the slow-moving event and walking alone blocks away to buy a refreshment or scout out an upcoming photo opportunity--when someone announced such an intention, we didn't feel the need to offer to go with them or even tell them to be careful. There was really no need. I don't think I would have felt the same even in relatively safe US cities like Portland, Oregon, because of the possibility of running into drug activity.

The event that really drove home the fact that things are different here in Toronto came relatively early in the night, though, when a parking enforcement officer was noted near the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. Several of the observers became concerned that they might technically be parked illegally and started to head for their vehicles. However, a policeman who happened to be standing near us, waiting to escort the next leg of the move, told us not to bother. "Let me go tell him to find somewhere else to work," he said, "It's the middle of the night, none of you is causing a problem and this is a city-approved event. The parking regulations are irrelevant now, and his time is better spent looking for real problems." The conversation occurred, and indeed to the best of my knowledge nobody parked reasonably received a ticket all night.

I just can't imagine that happening in the United States. The process of thinking through the intent of a law and then acting on the intent rather than the letter of the law is just not done south of the border--indeed, lawyers there would argue that constitutes a policeman acting as a judge and is therefore illegal. Here, intelligent selective enforcement--only when there is a actual problem threatening order--appears to be relatively common and accepted, even expected.

While one might think of drug laws in that regard, to me the most prominent example comes up on Canada Day. As people wait for the fireworks, particularly at the beach at Ashbridge's Bay, it is rare that someone in the crowd doesn't have illegal fireworks. As soon as they are fired, a pair or more of police officers always saunters over to the perpetrator, and after a conversation, those will be the last illegal fireworks coming from that part of the crowd. I've never overheard one of the conversations so I don't know if it's a safety lecture or if threats of consequences are involved, but I've never seen anyone arrested, I've never even seen the police pull out a notebook to write anything down, and it always seems to be effective. Perhaps US officers do the same thing on the Fourth of July, but here it's the norm--this is basically how the police appear to behave every day.

In fact, one of the most amazing things about police in Toronto is that they normally aren't visible. In California these days, it isn't possible to go to a strip mall without seeing at least a private security guard and sometimes a police officer, usually at a prominent location as a deterrent. If more than about 25 people are in one place, there will probably be a police officer watching. Here, unless there is a huge gathering as on Canada Day or at an outdoor concert, there probably won't be a visible police presence--yet the moment something happens, it's amazing to watch how fast they suddenly appear. A constant deterrent is not perceived as necessary, but the fast responses instill confidence in citizens that the police are available when needed.

Does all this help to make Toronto an especially livable city? I'd say so. The crime criteria used to rank cities may not sit well with those in the US, but conceptually, I have a hard time arguing with it.

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