Toronto the Good. That’s the nickname my city bestowed on itself. But there is another Toronto, a dark, dangerous city hidden beyond the bright lights. It is a world of violence, drugs, prostitution, robberies, weapons. Welcome to my world, welcome to 51 Division.
For close to fifteen years I worked the streets and laneways of Toronto’s smallest, yet busiest, division. In October 1988, I took my first fledgling steps as a police officer in that notorious section of downtown, an area most people only knew through the news. The division ran from the Don River over to Jarvis Street, and from the CN tracks in Rosedale down to Lake Ontario. For such a small area, a mere sliver of the Toronto pie, it held an incredible range of social layers, from the rich of Rosedale to the homeless and those struggling in poverty. The government housing projects of Regent Park and St. Jamestown rubbed shoulders with flourishing middle-class neighbourhoods like Cabbagetown.
51 was, and still is, known as many different things: the armpit of the city, the toilet, or simply as a shithole. God, I loved it. Gun calls, fights, foot pursuits. What more could a rookie ask for? It was the best place to learn to be a cop. Over the years I had the full extent of the human spirit revealed to me. I witnessed the miserable depths to which humans can fall, and waded through their filth. But I also saw acts of unselfish compassion and inspiring courage.
In my 51 years, I worked mostly in uniform, did the occasional stint in old clothes, but my favourite time was the three years on the Crisis Intervention Team. 51 has the vast majority of the city’s hostel beds, rooming houses galore, and a substantial homeless population. And a considerable portion of the people from these areas suffer from mental illness. When I started riding in the scout cars—my first few months were done on foot—I was shocked at the number of radio calls that were cleared with the complainant being “MI” or mentally ill.
Hence the need and creation of the CIT.
Launched in November 2000, the CIT was a joint effort between St. Michael’s Hospital and 51 Division. A psych nurse rode with a PC in an unmarked scout car responding to police calls involving EDPs, or emotionally disturbed person. Working on the team was both a privilege and a pleasure. I met fascinating people—mental illness in no way has to equate lack of intelligence—helped others who, through no fault of their own, were in situations of horrible, devastating crisis, and worked with a bunch of great people, both cops and nurses. When I left the team and the division in 2004, I took with me life-long friendships. One thing the cop movies and TV shows get right is the strength of the bonds forged in police work.
I’m now up in 32 Division, a much quieter, yet still busy part of the city. Actually, with the Service’s lack of manpower and an ever-growing city population, I don’t think there are any quiet divisions left. And now early retirement is in sight, my time as a Toronto police officer is almost done, but the friendships, experiences and life changing events will stay with me long after I hang up the uniform.