Fines imposed on Toronto park users at start of COVID-19 pandemic were “generally unfair”: ombudsman – .

Fines imposed on Toronto park users at start of COVID-19 pandemic were “generally unfair”: ombudsman – .

TORONTO – Toronto’s decision to issue hundreds of tickets to people found in closed parks at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was “generally unfair” given the “fragmented” and “confusing” messages surrounding what was and was not authorized, a new report from the city’s ombudsman revealed.

Ombudsman Susan Opler investigated Toronto’s enforcement of COVID-19 rules in city parks over a six-week period in the spring of 2020 after receiving a series of complaints.

Its 99-page report released on Friday found that while the city had an internal message “that clearly reflected what the public could and could not do in a park,” that public message lacked clarity and often mistakenly grouped together public health advice with legal rules.

She said communication problems associated with “inadequate training of by-law enforcement officers on how to fairly enforce” the rules created an atmosphere in which it was unfair for the city to issue tickets to people. for breaking COVID-19 rules in parks all had the unintended effect of completely discouraging people from using the parks.

“The city communicated frequently on COVID-19 rules for parks between April 2 and May 15, 2020. However, we found that overall, its communication was fragmented, confusing and in some cases inconsistent,” Opler wrote. “The park benches were a particular source of confusion. They were on the province’s closed amenities list, but never on the city’s. The city knew people were confused about them, but its messages on the park benches were inconsistent and unclear. “

Opler’s report detailed numerous cases of people being ticketed to access park facilities, including a previously unreported incident in which a black person was arrested while walking inside High Park, then followed by the officer for more than 25 minutes.

Opler said a subsequent investigation by the city’s human rights office found the officer “singled out the complainant on the basis of his race, rather than on the basis of a reasonable suspicion that he was violating. the rules of COVID-19 ”.

The report also detailed other occasions in which individuals were ticketed “not for flouting COVID-19 rules on the use of city parks, but simply for ignoring them.”

In one case, Opler said two friends sat at a picnic table in Trinity Bellwoods Park for take-out coffee when they were approached by two bylaw enforcement officers and handed over handouts. $ 880 separate tickets.

In another case, she said a man and woman were walking in Thompson Memorial Park when the woman accidentally fell. She said the woman said she was “very emotional” that day because she had just lost her job and sat on a bench next to a playground to calm down. Shortly after sitting down, Opler said the couple were approached by city law enforcement officers who issued them each with a ticket.

In both cases, the park benches were not cordoned off with yellow tape as was the case with other closed amenities in the parks, which contributed to the confusion.

“We found that, until we intervened, the city was not giving the public clear, coordinated and easy to understand information about what people could and could not do legally in the parks, despite the intentions. and the good faith efforts of the staff, ”Opler wrote, referring to a May 12 letter she wrote to City Manager Chris Murray seeking clarification. “It was unfair to everyone, especially the people who got tickets in city parks. “

Confusion around the policy of “zero tolerance”

Opler said law enforcement officers were initially asked to use “judgment and discretion in their duties” when it comes to enforcing the closure of park facilities, but she said that some officers felt compelled to issue tickets after receiving several emails from city officials referring to a “zero tolerance” policy.

She said there was also insufficient training on how to apply the new rules, which contributed to an environment in which they were not applied consistently.

“An officer told us that ‘zero tolerance’ means officers have to issue a ticket when someone does not comply with a request to stop the prohibited activity. Another understood that ‘zero tolerance’ should only be applied when safety was an issue, and yet another understood that ‘zero tolerance’ simply meant education was over and you had to start broadcasting. tickets, ”notes his report.

Opler makes a total of 14 recommendations in the report, including the creation of an “organization-wide communications policy regarding changes in people’s access to city services and facilities.”

She also recommends that municipal licenses and standards “immediately send clear and direct communication to all of its staff that zero tolerance is an unacceptable, unclear and unfair approach to law enforcement.”

The City is committed to adopting all the recommendations.

In a dated letter sent to Opler, City Manager Chris Murray said staff “faced significant challenges communicating and enforcing the many COVID and changing public health regulations and guidelines” at the onset of the pandemic.

He said that “recognizing this and learning from it is a necessary part of the process of improving the way the city serves its residents, even under the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic.”


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