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road rush

A couple of weeks ago, I described my frustrating, one-way relationship: the police were happy to write my family an endless series of tickets, but when we fell victim to crime, they did nothing.

I listed a few of the things that happened to us over the past 20 years or so: five garage break-ins, four major frauds and more bike thefts than I could remember. There was actually more, but I'd made my point – I used to consider the police our protectors, now I look upon them as latter-day sheriffs of Nottingham.

Last year, I got a traffic ticket because another journalist had removed a test-car's front licence plate for a photo shoot. The plate was in the car, and I offered to install it, but the police officer said no. "I'm going to write this up," he told me.

I decided I would write it up, too. I put it in my column, describing what it took to finally get the ticket thrown out by a crown attorney: two days of my time and three trips to a court office where I invariably found several city vehicles in the no-parking zones.

Writing that story was therapeutic, but I wondered what would happen after it was published. I soon got my answer – more than a thousand e-mails, phone calls and comments to The Globe and Mail site flooded in. There were a handful of critics, but the vast majority were people who shared my frustrations.

"Same sort of thing going on in Edmonton," wrote one reader. "With the highest murder rate in Canada, our police still have the time to set up speed traps, and give out tickets for the most minor of transgressions. Like citizens in Toronto, we are quickly losing respect for the cops."

"My very responsible neighbour was ticketed as she backed out of her driveway without first having done up her seatbelt," wrote another. "Her current insurance was in her house but she wasn't allowed to get it. And one headlight didn't work. There you go ... three tickets and three convictions. No mercy and no common sense."

Reader Phil Palter told me about the trap that police operate near his building in downtown Toronto, similar to the scene I described where officers line up on Toronto's Shaw Avenue to catch drivers who make the mistake of going straight through an intersection at prescribed times. In Palter's example, they bag drivers who make the mistake of turning right onto St. Paul's Square (one of the shortest streets in the city) during restricted hours.

On some days, there have been three cruisers, each from a different police division. Palter decided to find out why. After sending two letters to Toronto police chief Bill Blair, he got a call from a sergeant who explained that the street borders on three police divisions, and that each uses St. Paul's to make their quota.

"I object to the waste of resources," Palter said. "There are up to five police officers sitting there sometimes. This has nothing to do with public safety. We pay them to protect us, not collect revenue at our expense."

The story had obviously tapped into a deep well of frustration and resentment. One reader suggested suing the police: "We need a Canadian version of Ralph Nader, someone with a law background who will go after the Toronto police and sue them for dereliction of duty for neglecting duties regarding things that actually hurt/damage people like break-ins and identity theft, instead doing things that raise revenue. ..."

There were even some messages from police. One was pretty ticked off. "Every profession has its slice of mediocrity," he wrote. "You are yours. When you need help, try calling 912."

But he was alone. The other police officers had views that generally paralleled my own – they were frustrated with a system that focuses on quotas and revenue generation instead of crime investigation and connection with the community they are paid to protect.

"Loved your article and it was dead on," wrote an officer who had just retired after 35 years on the force. "Would love to send the guys a copy…"

"This isn't what I signed up for," said another. "But it's what we live with. It's turned into a numbers game."

The police don't like the system. We don't like it either. So why does it exist?

A really smart reporter once told me that the great story of our times is the story of institutional behaviour. I think she's right. Over the holidays, I watched a brilliant TV series that bore out her thesis: HBO's The Wire, which chronicles the lives of cops, drug dealers, teachers, politicians, and journalists.

Most of the police officers in The Wire were trying to do the right thing. But they were stuck with a system that valued politically motivated statistics above all else. The narcotics squad ignored major drug distributors because they could get higher arrest rates by busting teenage kids who sold crack on the street corner. Homicide investigators knew that were dozens of bodies hidden in abandoned homes, but were told not to retrieve them because it would add to the number of unsolved homicides.

The journalists in The Wire didn't have it much better – their newsrooms were being gutted by cutbacks, and honest reporters were outshone by a fraud artist who embellished facts and fabricated entire stories.

Unfortunately, this all rang true. I've seen my own business go off track more than once, and it was usually because people got obsessed with numbers. Back in the 1980s, newspapers were revolutionized by electronic library systems that enabled reporters to hunt for information without digging through paper clip files. It didn't take long for editors to realize they could count how many stories each of us wrote by doing an electronic byline search.

Like the police, we were caught in a numbers game. You could write 50 to 100 incredible stories that shook things up and got read by a vast audience. You might win the Pulitzer prize (one of my friends actually did this.) And somewhere, there would be a bureaucrat who would decide that your performance was inferior to a guy who had produced 400 trivial stories.

Most of the journalistic misdirection I've encountered wasn't dishonest. Instead, good people went down the wrong path because of boneheaded incentives – racking up a monster byline count doesn't leave much time for that Watergate thing that might or might not pay off.

And so we return to the police officer at the speed trap. Maybe he'd like to figure out who broke into my garage five times, who skimmed our bank account, or who took out credit cards in the name of my wife and myself. But he's got a quota to make, the boss is watching, and the Toronto police budget is more than $930-million.

And so he plays the numbers game. That traffic ticket is sure-fire. Our fraud investigation isn't. I get that. Officer, I feel your pain. But now it's time for you to do what every good journalist I've ever met does on a fairly regular basis – go fight with your boss. Push for something different. The ball is in your court.

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Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive


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