Monday, November 12, 2007

To serve and protect

I’m still trying to figure out just what I witnessed this morning. Cycling home from a doctor’s appointment up Parliament Street, I got cut off by a police officer making a U turn. After narrowly missing me, he pulled over, got out of his car (which was still idling), and walked over to a panhandler sitting on the sidewalk.

I stopped to see what was going to happen.

_____ is someone I often chat with and offer smiles and meals to. When she’s not asking for change, she sometimes yells “get out”. Other times she just moans loudly. Some people find it annoying. I hear people laughing and smirking around her all the time. That’s all about fear, that’s what that reaction is. My reaction is different because I know there’s a person in there. Someone who could easily be my mother.

Who is she talking to when she yells “get out”? I asked her once. She said she’s afraid of getting hit again.

People say she’s an addict. I don’t doubt that. But you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to recognize that her addictions are probably just a symptom of something greater. Something that all the finger-pointers are trying desperately not to admit. Yes, as my therapist says, “there’s a little bit of madness in all of us”, and that’s a scary realization for most people. It’s much easier to call other people “crazy” or “lunatics”. Those other people who could easily be their mother.

“Come over here ______, I want to talk to you”, he said.

She got up, and he got back into his (still idling) car. I couldn’t hear what was being said as she leaned into the open passenger side window. But I could tell she was answering the questions being asked of her respectfully. She then moved away from the car and sat down on the rain soaked sidewalk for about 10 minutes while the officer idled his car. She just sat there, obediently, waiting.

I guess he called her name, because she got up, now with a rain-soaked bottom, and leaned over into the open passenger window.

He handed her a piece of paper.

“What is it?”, she asked after saying “Thank you”.

I couldn’t make out what the officer said, but I heard her response.


Then, the officer raised his voice,

“You can’t stay here anymore”.

“Ok”, she said as she walked away.

I couldn’t help but wonder what he had given her. Maybe the name of a shelter? Or a phone number and 50 cents to make a call? Or maybe he had given her the name of a social service agency that could help her find greater independence. “To serve and protect” – I was hopeful that that’s what he was doing.

I walked up to her, as I have many times before, and smiled.

“Hi _____. What did that police officer give you?”

“A $100 ticket” she said.

Now, who is that serving? And how is that protecting anyone? This woman has a fixed income of $500 per month. She is unable to work because she was asked to leave work to go on disability, has had a stroke, and I’d be willing to bet that she is challenged by mental health issues. In essence, she was fined for having a disability. For trying to supplement her income, for doing the best she knows how to do.

In the time that that police officer took to write up that ticket (which, who are we kidding, is never gonna get paid), he could have easily driven her to a nearby community health centre or shelter. All those exhaust fumes (which, by the way, were blowing directly into her face while she sat waiting on the sidewalk) could have done less harm had he just used his “law enforcement skills” to honour the most basic law of all: showing respect and kindness to everyone.

The problem is not panhandling. The problem is that we punish the ill for something beyond their control. We have laws that penalize our unhealthy brothers, sisters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, cousins, nieces, fathers and grandfathers. There’s something really, really wrong about that. Really wrong.

1 comment:

  1. Jenn, thank you for writing this piece. I strongly encourage you to submit it somewhere for publication. It is sensitively written and draws attention to an issue really worth looking at in our city.