Two police officers in body armour face me in front of the open garage doors. Red pin stripes on their pants glow in the spill from their flashlights. These are not your friendly bicycle cops who monitor the public at protests, but uniformed patrolmen bedecked with instruments of pain. Still, I don’t back away. I stand my ground and hold my camera before me like a shield.
“Gud evenin,” the officer on the righthand side has an East Coast accent and a natural swagger that hints at his own self-importance. He scans me from head to toe before he adds, “young ducky.” He looks about thirty years old and has brown freckles. His bottom-lip is scabby and split-open like he was recently punched in the mouth.
“How long you been out here?” The second man is a sandy haired Barney Rubble from The Flintstones come to life in a police uniform. He’s a muscle-bound caveman with a day-old beard stubble and angry eyes. I ignore his question to shuffle right and put the lightbulb behind his head.
“What are ye at dere?” Freckles nods at my camera and of course I don’t answer. I let the silence hang until he says, “well?”
“Recording what I can see in public.”
“Are you recording us right now?” the blond cop asks.
“Yes. I am.” I tell him this and watch his eyes widen.
The lawmen exchange glances.
“Who da ya work fer?”
“I’m just taking a walk.”
“Can I ask you miss, not to record us?” the stocky blond officer raises a hand.
“You can ask.”
“It’s police business.”
“Which is public business right?” My voice cracks.
“Snot for skoolgurls.” The freckled policeman grows frustrated. “Who sent ya come back here?”
“Kerson Lane is public property.”
A perfect response, it prompts both constables to turn their flashlights on me. This is a common defense mechanism. They could ruin my footage and, depending on the bulbs, they could actually burn out my camera’s CCD chip. Plus it leaves me without an effective remedy. There’s no point objecting; from what I know by watching so many other videos online, they’ll simply claim it’s for officer safety reasons, even though I present no threat. Their safety shouldn’t supersede my right to record, but in all the other videos I’ve watched online, it always does. I know from judging other auditors’ work that the best course of action is to simply lower my lens and film their feet until they relax their flashlights. Recording dialogue is just as interesting. I’ll appear compliant until such time as I can record their faces again. Stay calm.
“Listen. We’re juss requesting... For our safety.” Barney steps closer and I withdraw. He looks west and I see headlights on approach from the Drummond street entrance. Oh no. It’s the same white Sprinter van.
I watch as the freckled cop raises his hand to signal the driver to stop. The vehicle slows and then stops. It idles, watching.
“What are you trying to hide?” I readjust my camera on their new positions and the blond cop retrains his flashlight on the lens. Freckles shines his light in my eyes so I can’t see what they’re doing, but I hear them mumbling.
“Gudnigh missus,” the police officer from the East Coast says. He steps back and flips a door latch. “You ken gwan naw. Get on the go.” Both police officers hide behind the wide garage doors and pull them shut.
“Wait... What are your names?”
Too late. The lightbulb inside the shed turns-off. Wow. I can’t even call that a walk-of-shame, it ended so abruptly. I breathe a sigh of relief though. Then my curiosity grows. What’s going on?
Something is happening here. Those officers sure didn’t want to be recorded, and they did a masterful job of hiding their faces. I made a terrible mess of the whole encounter. I didn’t even get their names. But how could I know it'd end so abruptly?
The garage door is stenciled #32 Drummond. That makes it easy. I know there’s a way to find out who owns each city lot, and how much property tax they pay. That’s definitely public knowledge, although I don’t know how to get that information. And what would I learn anyway? I’d see names I don’t recognize. It’s certainly not a big scoop. So what if there are police officers and fancy motorcycles in a residential alley garage? That's not exactly headline news.
I turn my attention to the white Sprinter van which still idles at the Drummond St entrance to the alley. I dare not approach it. The sight of that ghostly vehicle lurking back there terrifies me. It makes me want to turn and run all the way back to Neill Wycik. That’s because I know there’s at least two guys inside and I know how easy it’d be for them to grab me and throw me in the back. I clutch my phone make Live Producer active on screen.
“Excuse us miss . Hello?”
Two much older men in grey suits flash gold badges to signify they’re law enforcement. Where did they come from? They’re seniors, and one has a bushy white beard like Santa Claus.
The other cop has salt & pepper beard stubble on his chin and an angry face with dark eyes and a military crewcut. He looks familiar. Then I remember; he’s the undercover officer I bumped into today, twelve hours earlier at Dundas and Simcoe beside the pink house. He carries a service revolver concealed in a shoulder holster under his jacket.
“Hi there.” Santa beard says. His thin lips form a queer red smile in the center of his all-white face. I must appear frightened for he raises his right hand to calm me. “Don’t be scared.”
“We’d just like to identify you,” the crewcut says and I hear his French accent. He’s probably from Quebec. Good Cop, Bon Cop.
My brain goes in three directions at once. Part of me seizes-up in fear while another fraction becomes rigidly defiant. A third portion grows curious. These are high ranking officers; there must be something really big happening here. Am I safe?
Live Producer app on my phone can’t connect. Arrgh! The WiFi signal isn’t strong enough and I need a signal booster. The device can still record though, and it will send the file later I think. I’m holding both my gadgets in my hands like a robot.
“Are you okay?” Santa asks, and I recognize this as a well worn police interrogation tactic. What he’s really saying is; let me pretend to be concerned for your safety while I intake all your details and sift for any possible crimes for which I can lay an easy-to-prosecute charge.
“Have you got any ID with you?” the French undercover asks, right on cue. He doesn’t recognize me from our encounter this morning.
“Oh. Have I broken the law?”
“You’re trespassing.” Quebec cop says, “you don’t live here.”
“How do you know?”
“That’s why we’re asking for I.D.” White beard replies, proud of his logic.
“Ohh...” I have an idea. “Are you carding me?”
“No.” Santa makes it clear that’s not his position. Carding is when police officers stop, question, and document individuals without any evidence they’ve been involved in a crime. Police watchdogs believe that bias and stereotyping play into officers’ decisions on who to stop and this affects many racialized groups, especially black people. For this reason, the practice was banned in Toronto just last year.
“We are investigating you, and you will comply,” the Quebecois insists.
Now I’m nervous. I know there’s no difference between carding and investigating, but I’m no position to point that out. When two men in suits tell you how things are going to be, it’s unnerving, especially when you know they’re wrong.
My iPhone craps out trying to make Live Producer work and I groan to myself, but keep a straight face. I pocket the device like nothing’s wrong. Despite the word LIVE in my channel’s name, I’ve never had much luck uploading anything in real time to any platform. Now I'm in trouble. There’s no witnesses here, and my Panasonic can easily be confiscated. I’m well and truly alone and I feel my heartrate double. Calm down.
“I know it doesn’t work like that.” I hold out my free hand outstretched before me, “can you please maintain your distance?”
“Don’t tell us what to do,” the Frenchman takes a step closer and I raise my mask.
“I asked you. I said please.”
“What is your name?” Frenchie questions me more forcefully.
“What is your name?” I answer his question with the same question, a great trick for auditors because the rule is that law enforcement, regardless of rank, must identify themselves when asked by the public. That’s because they’re here to serve and protect us. I pan the camera to include his partner in the frame.
“Clinton McKenzie,” Santa-beard replies and then he scratches his hairy chin as if contemplating what to do next. I pan the frame to center on the salty French cop.
“And you?” I ask.
“You first,” the Quebecer replies. He’s old-boy arrogant and school-playground stupid. There’s no point violating department policy. He must identify himself when asked, and to do otherwise will result in a complaint citation and possible demotion in rank. He knows this too, and it pains him. He speaks his name as quickly and incomprehensibly as possible; “Commander Cochutemete,” he snarls. “Now it’s your turn.”
“I have a Charter Right to record video of what I see in public,” I say, “anonymously.” I take the legal high ground.
“Nobody said you didn’t,” McKenzie counters. “We just want to know who we’re talking to?”
“We’ve had a lot of break-ins here, er... In this area.” Cochutemete eyes me from head to toe. “You fit the description.”
“I fit the description? Hah.” I laugh like it’s ridiculous, and hope it comes off that way. In truth, I’ve actually broken-into houses before and with disastrous consequences, but I won't let it distract me.
“This is a police investigation.” McKenzie steps closer. “It’s suspicious that you’re out here.”
“Am I being detained?”
“Right now you are, yes,” Cochutemet says. “I’m going to pat you down. Have you got anything...”
“No. You’re not.” I stand my ground. “I do not consent.” I watch his eyes widen. “You have no reasonable ar....”
“Don’t mess with us.” The Quebecer raises his index finger to scold me.
“Produce I.D. or we’ll take you to jail.” Clinton McKenzie states. That’s the ultimatum.
“For what crime?”
“Mischief, with a side order of criminal interference,” Commander Cochutemete says.
“For being a pain in the ass,” McKenzie states and then adds, “who won’t identify herself.”
“This is a public lane.”
“It’s a high crime area. We’re investigating suspicious behaviour.” Cochutemete looks me in the eyes. “Are you refusing to produce identification?”
“I’m under no obligation...” I start to say, but I’m interrupted by McKenzie who produces handcuffs from under his suit jacket.
“...Then you can wear these,” he holds up the metal bracelets.
This is the ultimate ultimatum. What will happen if I refuse? They’ll take me away. They’ll seize my camera. They’ll erase everything.
Behind me, a door opens. Creak. Powerful floodlights turn-on.
The alley is suddenly bathed in bright white light. I have to squint it’s so intense. I can feel my Panasonic rapidly stopping-down its aperture. The cops turn and raise their hands to shade their eyes. Part of me wants to run, but it’s seldom wise to flee the scene. I shake away the notion and get back to work. I flag the floodlight off my lens with my left hand and use the new source to get a nice two-shot of the agents.
“Is everything okay back here?” A old man’s voice asks. It’s the Asian jewelry store owner I videoed earlier. This must be the backend of his store. No wonder there are powerful floodlamps. They’re probably on a motion sensor and came on automatically when he opened the backdoor. Nobody answers him and he takes a step forward into the light.
“Go back inside sir,” McKenzie says.
“You can’t run me off my own property.” The shop owner retorts. He studies me from head to toe in a search of injury. I cheer him for being so brave. Thank you! These two won’t dare lay hands on me now that you’re here. I bravely sidestep my tormentors. Cochutemete looks directly at the camera. He doesn’t like that he has been recorded like this, and now I’m convinced he was about to seize and delete my footage. But they can’t do that now because there’s a witness.
“Mr. Rabethgie,” I pretend to know my saviour, “there you are. I knocked earlier.”
“Uhuh,” the Asian man goes along with it, but he doesn’t fully commit. “Come,” he beckons me closer. I step to the drive behind his jewelry shop. The grey stucco building has bars on the windows. The place looks like a jailhouse and that unnerves me.
“This isn’t over..,” McKenzie starts to say, but Cochutemete knocks his arm and he goes silent. They both step back into the shadows and away from me and my protector.
“What’s that address?” Cochutemete asks his partner quietly as they retreat. I’m just brave enough to record them as they walk away. Their grey suits fade into the darkness. I can still see the Sprinter’s headlights at the Drummond street entrance to the alley. My hands shake and the image wobbles. I’m gonna need a stiff drink to calm down tonight...
“Are you alright?” The jeweler asks me kindly, “did they put hands on you?”
“No. It never came to that...” I study him; he’s in his early sixties. He looks kind now that his face isn’t stuck in its regular frown. “Thanks to you.”
“Come inside. I’ll call you a taxi.”
“No, thanks.” My attention drifts to my phone.
“It’s not safe out here. I’ll worry...”
“Do you often see police in this alley?”
“Bah. They’re not police. They’re bikers and thugs.” He turns and opens the rear door of his shop. “Come inside.”
“No. Thanks.” Through the barred-windows in the basement I can see stacks of cardboard boxes. “I’ll just be moving along.” I really need that drink.
From the alley, I watch his perma-frown return when he closes the backdoor. Now what? Now I get the hell out of here. I’m not going to surveil these streets a second longer. To hell with Chantwell and Blue and this ridiculous assignment. I was so stupid to say yes to this. So stupid. I’ve just recorded two back-to-back police encounters and one with a heated I.D. refusal. Normally I’d be thrilled. Not this time. I'm freaked out.
I turn-off my camera so I can hold its lens and body. I clutch my phone in my other hand as I run.
Madden Girl black leather boots clomp the concrete. I jog down Kerson Lane towards the parking lot. I run around the four story building on Carlyle and across the lawn under the flaccid flag. When I risk a glance over my shoulder, I see the entrance to the alley is empty. Nobody follows. The whole area is deserted.
Traffic lights on Church St turn green and cars move in both directions. I’m on the sidewalk jogging south beside traffic. I see a lone Toronto police cruiser among the cars coming north. There are two cops inside. The passenger points at me and the squad car slows and idles right to wait for the vehicles behind to pass before it does a U-turn. I pour on the speed.
Ryerson School of Journalism is ahead. I’m not a student, but I know the complex by heart. There’s a basement concourse under the street that links Roger’s Film & Television Building and that’s close to Neill Wycik.
Sure enough, the cruiser’s wheels screech as it swings around. Its horn squawks. Red and blue cherry lights turn-on. Really? Am I now a wanted fugitive? For what crime? For being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I run to the ivy covered building and up the steps. I push-on the doors. They open. Thank goodness. Inside the building, grandpa-janitor leans on a push broom six feet away from a black female GS4 security guard. They both wear disposable cloth masks.
“Building’s closed miss.” The watchwoman says.
“I’m not staying” I bolt to the stairs. Red and blue lights shine through the glass and play on the walls. I descend three steps at a time until I find myself in the basement PATH. There are cafes, kiosks and a Ryerson gift shop, but everything is dark. I pray the doors ahead are not locked...
The doors open and I hustle through the causeway. Underground, on the other side of the street, I’m in the basement of the Roger’s Building. It’s brighter over here and there are people ahead of me. This is the basement of another student-residence building and there’s a large cafeteria and food court. Nothing is open of course but this place has dozens of exits and one that runs straight to Gerrard.
The passage is deserted. My boots echo in the empty corridor. I’m almost there...