A cop on every corner and in every backyard

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JeffreyCouncillor Kathy Jeffrey wants to get tough on crime. Serious crimes like throwing birdseed on your deck, not cutting the grass on the boulevard in front of your house, and riding a bicycle on a sidewalk. I suppose and we’re all at risk from imminent social collapse if they aren’t curtailled and the malfeasants brought to justice right away.

And charged. Big, hefty, bankruptcy-threatening fines.

Getting tough on crime is always a hot button topic around election time, so there’s little surprise Jeffrey is on that bandwagon now, and was silent about it the previous three-and-a-half years.

The Connection reported that in a recent council meeting, she said,

“If we can’t enforce them, why do we have rules?… It would definitely require more staffing, and it would have to pay for itself somehow…”

“If we can’t enforce them, why do we have rules?” That’s an ironic comment coming form a member of The Block who voted against her own town bylaws to fire the members of the town’s electricity and water utility boards. They’re sure a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do bunch at the table this term. Everyone else has to obey the rules, just not The Block.

Adding more staff to the bylaw department? We’ve already learned this term that hiring more people for town hall is something The Block just love to do. So what that the latest accommodation review says that The Block’s willy-nilly tactic of hiring more and more staff will cost taxpayers between $20 and $25 million? After all, it’s not their money they’re wasting.

And they sure do waste it.

Jeffrey also wants the bylaw department to be self-funding – which means ramping up the fines to stratospheric levels. After all, how many $10 and $20 fines does it take to pay a $60,000-$80,000 bylaw officer’s salary? What about five more officers? Ten more? A hundred more?

The bylaw department isn’t self-funding now and people already complain about the fines. Imagine what they will be when Jeffrey gets her way. $1,000 fine for letting your lawn grown a centimeter above the proscribed height.

We have so many sidewalks to monitor, so many boulevards to surveil, so many decks and driveways we need to keep vigilant against birdseed, so many streets to watch for random shovels of snow being tossed on them. How many more officers would we need to do it properly? And how many more vehicles to get them to and fro? How many more desks, cell phones, laptops, uniforms, offices, ticket books?

Dozens I suspect. Or maybe hundreds are needed to satisfy Jeffrey’s cop-on-every-corner enforcement strategy. Maybe instead we should install security cameras on every street corner, too. Maybe buy drones to fly over homes to see if birdseed is surreptitiously being thrown on back decks. If we implanted everyone with an ID chip, we could process criminals so much faster, too.

Okay, seriously: most if not all municipalities have a system of complaint-driven bylaw enforcement, at least partially so. These depend on people complaining about something. It’s not just pitting neighbour against neighbour: in a community, people act as their own neighbourhood watch. There’s a level of responsibility put on residents in a democracy: if you want the community to act according to certain standards, residents need to take some responsibility for them.

The complaint process also allows anonymity. Bylaw officers deal with the alleged infraction, not the neighbour- and can make a determination on the scene if anything is actually wrong and requires remediation.

A complaint system works because it’s simply too much work, too expensive and too time-consuming for a municipalities to enforce every bylaw to an exacting standard – and to hire enough staff to do so.

Besides, do we really want a police-state-like enforcement of grass height, or yard-sale sign violations? Think of the social media reaction and public outrage when a municipality shuts down kids selling lemonade. We’d have that here every week with a cop on every corner.

Bylaws are also created as deterrence and for education. For example, it’s illegal to idle your car for more than a few minutes, has been for the past decade. But as far as I know, no one has even been ticketed. Bylaw officers, I’m told, inform the offenders of the rule, and warn them. Same with bicycles on the sidewalk. Or offering rooms or homes through Airbnb. Walking a dog off leash in a park. Smoking within 9 metres of a downtown doorway. And yes, tossing birdseed on your deck really is verboten thanks to The Block.

All of these and many more things are illegal, but seldom fined or taken to court. Why not? Because court is expensive and time-consuming, too. Every bylaw officer in court is one less on the street enforcing bylaws. It’s often less expensive to warn someone than to fine them and get dragged through court to get $100 or $200 for the offence. Plus there’s all sorts of paperwork and record keeping for every ticket and court appearance.

Sure, it might be more effective if bylaw officers were on a fixed schedule to drive around town and look for infractions. But it would be more expensive, too – we have a lot of streets to drive. With more officers and more vehicles, it would be more harmful to the environment, too.

And yeah, there are a few things I’d like to see enforced a LOT more (like people not picking up after their dogs – or the sociopaths who leave the poop in a bag for someone to pick up). But are we really a lawless community like she intimates which needs to be strong-armed into conformity? How much of our quality of life, how much small town feel are we willing to give up in order to get that extra enforcement?

In his famous work, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

Apparently Jeffrey would give up a lot to have her police state implemented – and spend a lot of your taxes to get it. But not me.

Collingwood deserves better.

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