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Park Ambassador Program a Welcomed Shift Away from Policing the Pandemic

Written by: Katarina Bogosavljevic (@kajabogo) is a member of the We Can't Police the Pandemic Group and PhD Student in Criminology at the University of Ottawa; Samantha McAleese (@Sam_McAleese) represents the Coalition Against More Surveillance; Alexander McClelland (@alexmcclelland), University of Ottawa, is co-founder of the Policing the Pandemic project.

Last week, the City of Ottawa reopened green spaces and launched a Park Ambassador Program to educate residents about what they can and cannot do in parks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Open parks and an educational approach to COVID-19 regulations is welcomed news, but what about the 117 tickets issued prior to last week’s announcements?

When Ottawa declared a state of emergency in March, bylaw officers were granted enforcement powers under Ontario’s Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act. It didn’t take long for the pattern of enforcement to reflect what we already know about policing - that vulnerable, marginalized and racialized individuals are most at risk of being surveilled and punished.

Two incidents from April highlight the impact of enforcement on racialized individuals. Obi Ifedi, a black man, was fined $2,010 for being in the park with his daughter and was also allegedly punched in the face by an officer during the encounter. Quasi Alnofal, a Syrian refugee, was fined $880 for being at the park with his siblings despite explaining to bylaw that he was unaware of the rules due to his limited English. 

These cases, plus what we’ve heard from frontline workers and advocates, indicate that this punitive approach to public health only leads to increased discrimination and abuses - a phenomenon noted by researchers and advocates during  the HIV epidemic.

City officials emphasize that the 117 tickets issued so far is low compared to the more than 3,500 calls that bylaw has responded to since April 3, but we cannot ignore the unconstitutional nature of the tickets. To address these legally dubious fines, a local petition asks the City to immediately withdraw all tickets issued under the emergency act.

Calls and complaints to police, including an increase in reports of vagrancy, demonstrate that many people currently stuck at home are concerned about adherence to public health guidelines. But what is the outcome of this snitch culture for residents across Ottawa? Does calling the police make us safer during the pandemic, or is it only adding to the crisis? 

It is important to remember that police and bylaw officers are exempt from following the public health guidelines they have been deputized to enforce. On top of contributing to a culture of distrust and suspicion, more police on the streets may increase COVID-19 transmissions. 

We must remember the most vulnerable in our communities have reduced access to services because many resource centres and day programs are closed or operating at reduced capacity. Before calling 3-1-1, consider that the people you see congregating on the streets outside emergency shelters don’t have a home to go to. Instead, take a moment to support the #HotelsToHomes campaign to ensure housing for all. 

To prevent more people from being ticketed, we call on Ottawa residents to stop and reflect before calling police or bylaw. Consider the possible harm that interactions with enforcement officers can bring to already over-policed people and communities. Think about what other resources might be available to better educate someone or meet their basic needs. For example, the United Way of Eastern Ontario is collaborating with organizations and volunteers across the city to provide support to newcomers and refugees during the pandemic.

The Park Ambassador Program is a good alternative to policing and enforcement that will hopefully result in fewer fines and less negative interactions with bylaw and police officers. This approach - grounded in education, compassion and understanding - gives power and resources back to residents, encourages an ethic of care and mutual aid, and will actively contribute to safer, healthier communities both during and long after the pandemic.

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