Most remedies outside justice system: staff sergeant
Complaints about lewd behaviour that made some feel unsafe walking in downtown Smithers were addressed by the mayor, councillors and the local RCMP last week.
Mayor Taylor Bachrach said concerns raised on Facebook page “Smithers Customer Service Review”, usually a page reserved for rating area businesses, led him and deputy mayor Frank Wray to meet with Smithers RCMP, the Salvation Army, Broadway Place Shelter, Positive Living North and town staff to discuss the issue.
Smithers RCMP Staff Sgt. Kirsten Marshall wrote a detailed letter on how the RCMP responds to public disturbance complaints, which while not covering all incidents that police have to deal with, was very clear in explaining why not many complaints can lead to the criminal justice getting involved.
“One of the things that came out of the social media conversation was that there seemed to be a lack of understanding of how the RCMP engage with situations in our downtown, especially around inappropriate behaviour,” said Bachrach, who added he was pleased with the clarity of Marshall’s letter.
The mayor said he understood people did not want to be disturbed downtown, especially when with children. He went on to say homelessness and negative street behaviour are linked, and the town was in a position to help by accessing grants for non-profit groups like Smithers Action Group.
“One thing we can do is to start from a place of trying to understand the people better, because they’re our neighbours and we live together,” said Bachrach.
Louie Wilson and Jim Thomas were hanging out at Bovill Square Friday afternoon, sitting on the stage. They agreed there was a problem with some younger people who had issues with alcohol, and that people needed to feel safe downtown, but believe there is more to do to help the homeless in Smithers. Too many are being turned away from shelter according to Wilson, who lost a sister on the Highway of Tears. It took a year to find Ramona’s body. Thomas lost his brother Wayne, who was sleeping in the bush.
“They’re in need of winter clothing and proper boots,” said Wilson, explaining how to help local homeless.
Letter by Smithers RCMP Staff Sgt. Kirsten Marshall:
In Canada, we are privileged to live in a free and democratic society. This means that we limit government interference in the private lives of Canadians to lawful and necessary purposes. Any police interference with personal liberty must be justified by some prevailing government interest, in the case of the RCMP, enforcement of the law, preservation of the peace, and protection of public safety, among other things. Police are called to and respond to a variety of offences and behaviours on a daily basis; not all of them—indeed fewer of them than most people think—end up with someone’s liberty being taken away.
The Smithers RCMP receive a variety of complaints related to the downtown core, often related to behaviours that are disturbing to the general public (ie: profanity, shouting, sleeping in public places, public drinking or intoxication). When police respond to these types of calls they are obligated to assess what they observe, in conjunction with the information they received from the complainant, to determine what actions they will take next. The public often assumes if they call the police, it will result in an individual being arrested but this is not always the case. Many police calls for service, based on a totality of circumstances, do not identify a situation that represents an offence against the laws of Canada, the province or the town, or meet the threshold of something that does harm to the public peace. Even when an offence has been committed, this does not automatically give the police the authority to arrest someone.
Police take their authority to arrest primarily from section 495 of the Criminal Code of Canada, although there are provisions in others Acts, such as the Liquor Control and Licensing Act (LCLA), to arrest if certain conditions exist. Under the criminal code, police may arrest someone who has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a serious offence. Police may also arrest someone who is committing a less serious offence, but all arrests must be in the public interest. If an arrest is not in the public interest, it must not happen. Police may also apprehend (not arrest), with the goal of taking a person to the hospital and not to jail, someone who is apparently suffering from a mental disorder AND who is acting dangerously.
In the case of public intoxication complaints, the police must ask, “is the individual able to safely care for themselves, or do they have someone reasonably close by that is able to take responsibility/ care for them?”. If the answer is yes, the police must not arrest the individual under the LCLA. If the individual’s intoxication leads to a criminal offence—causing a disturbance or committing mischief, for example—an officer MAY arrest if it is in the public interest to do so. Police have discretion in these cases based on the totality of the circumstances.
Not all behaviour that may be disturbing to the public (e.g. catcalls, whistling, begging, leering, obscene conversation, talking to oneself) necessitates police intervention. In fact, most of it does not, and should not. Most of it represents social transgression whose remedies (such as tolerance, patience, and understanding) can not be found in the criminal justice system. When that behaviour interferes with the public peace, violates the law, or is dangerous, you can be sure that the police, based on reasonableness and proportionality, will consider all of the lawful remedies at their disposal, up to and including arrest.