A public park is a place to have fun and unwind.
As one of the largest parks in the city, Trinity Bellwoods attracts thousands of visitors and local residents like friends Sara Dipoce and Sara Bourgard, who were relaxing and enjoying the great atmosphere this week when a small group of 14 Division police officers appeared on bicycles to inquire how they were doing.
The friends didn’t mind the interruption once the officers said they were patrolling the park to ensure that its users are safe.
“The officers are amazing and they seem very respectful,” said Bourgard. “I like coming out here and no one bothers me. Nevertheless, it’s good to know that the officers are around looking out for the community and the people who use this area.”
There is an increased police presence in the park, this summer, after widespread open drinking and disrespectful behaviour last summer.
“An urban myth surfaced a year ago that it was permissible to drink alcohol in the park and people were coming from outside the area because they thought what they were hearing was true,” said Staff Sergeant James Hogan, of 14 Division Community Response Unit (CRU). “On weekends and holidays, thousands of people were engaged in drinking down here.”
Upset with the damaging behaviour, park users and residents voiced their concerns with police.
“Things came to a bit of a head when nearby residents became very unhappy,” said Hogan. “But the culture of drinking had already taken hold. We were in a reactive mode in response to residents who felt the park was out of control and it wasn’t a safe place anymore.”
To combat the problem, police created Project White Squirrel.
“The name came after the albino squirrel family that can be found in Trinity Bellwoods Park,” Hogan pointed out. “With the area becoming more populated with the development of condos, we met with residents and City of Toronto Parks officials in April to address the situation. We wanted to set a new tone and change the climate this summer.
“We asked the city, who we were helping, if they had anything on their website or any code of conduct for parks that could be used to reinforce the message that a park is a shared resource and everyone wants to enjoy the green space in the city. We suggested that they could create a pamphlet like we do for our educational campaigns that we could distribute to people.”
This plan has worked.
Hogan and his crew have distributed almost 1,000 pamphlets in the last six weeks.
Park users are reminded that alcohol can only be served, consumed or sold in parks with a permit and liquor license, smoking is prohibited within nine metres of many park facilities, park hours are from 5.30 a.m. to midnight, except for special permitted events and dog waste must be scooped up.
Failing to comply with these rules and regulations could lead to a $360 fine for consuming, selling or serving liquor in a park without a permit, $235 for encumbering in a public place, $260 for creating a nuisance or in any way interfering with the use and enjoyment of the park by other persons and $360 for allowing a dog to run around without a leash in an off-leash area and smoking within nine metres of a sports field.
“The wording is very succinct. What is said in the pamphlet could apply to any city park,” Hogan added. “What we are trying to do is get people to regulate themselves.”
Constable Michael Muir is part of the Division’s team assigned to patrolling Trinity Bellwoods and the surrounding area.
“Last summer, it seemed as if it was a free-for-all out here,” he said. “We did a lot of enforcement that worked. We, however, felt there were some things that could be done better and that included education.
“…If we believe certain people legitimately feel as though they are allowed to drink in the park and do certain illegal things, we might go by way of education by giving them a pamphlet. If we are of the opinion that these people know, but simply don’t care, then we will go by way of enforcement… Things have been much better so far this summer.”
Sergeant Mike Facoetti is very familiar with the park, having patrolled the neighbourhood for several years.
“The year 2012 is really when the problem with people drinking in the park became obvious and a problem,” he pointed out. “Last year, it was more prevalent in that, almost everywhere you went in this park, you would see someone consuming alcohol. When we approached people to tell them they were not allowed to drink in the park, they actually told us they believed they could open up their bottle of wine and consume alcohol. When they became intoxicated, they would use residents’ verandas as urinals. That was unacceptable behaviour as far as I was concerned.”
Prior to this year, Constable Cameron Ross patrolled the neighbourhood in a marked scout car.
“Since I have been working in the area for the last six years, this is the first time I am on a bike and it has been quite interesting so far,” he said. “It’s quite different dynamic when you ride through this park, as opposed to driving around it in a car. It’s quite busy here and I enjoy interacting with people and making them aware that we are here to make this area safe for them to have a good time.”
Shelley Eriksen certainly doesn’t mind the police presence in the park.
“I like people-watching and being in close proximity to all the good pastry,” said Eriksen, who was with her daughter and parents on this pleasant summer afternoon. “We frequently come here and the police presence makes it feel safer.”