This night, at about a quarter to 8pm, two policemen approached the person sitting in front of the empty Ottawa Sun box and she got up.
She had been sitting there when I had sat down, at least forty minutes, barely breaking her silent, empty gaze as pedestrians went by her, often ignoring her. She was very skinny, and wasn't holding a sign. She wasn't asking people for change, or even saying hello, as some panhandlers do.
And the police got her to leave. They watched her as she sullenly stuffed into the recycling bin the newspapers on which she had been sitting, then walked away.
As they did this, I got up and stood outside the door of Bridgehead, my body language making it clear that I was keeping away, but watching very intently. The cops chose not to notice me.
I followed the cops and called out "excuse me" as nonaggressively as I could, and I guess they didn't hear me because they started into a lively chat with a couple on the patio of the Sir John A. I stood back, allowing pedestrians to pass on the sidewalk, and waited about five minutes until their conversation waned.
Again, as I waited, I used my body language to make it clear I was there for them: my hands were in my pockets, my shoulders were aimed square at them, and my eyes were on them, making eye contact whenever they popped their head up to look around.
There were two officers, both beat cops on foot.
The older one, a sergeant, looked around 50-60 years old, white male, with salt-and-pepper hair under his cap. He lightly rested the palm of his right hand lightly on the end of his sidearm and fold-up baton on his belt.
The younger one, a constable, was more interested in the conversation and more comfortable in it. He looked around 30, a bit on the larger side, and had a buzz cut and a short goatee from his lower lip to his chin.
As I stood there immobile, I noticed that the sergeant's shoes were shinier.
I suspect the sergeant was uncomfortable because he realized I was there, and he knew that eventually this conversation would have to end and he'd have to talk to me. He forced himself to look cheerful as he chatted, despite his obvious discomfort, in order to borrow as much time as possible.
The younger one suggested they'd better get back on their way, and the sergeant turned around.
"Hi!" I said as cheerfully as I could muster.
"Oh, you're waiting for me? Sorry," asked the sergeant with a politeness so artificial that it was obvious he knew for damn sure I was waiting for him.
So we're both playing ignorant. Fine.
It was at this point that I discovered the sergeant, Mr. Couillard, was about six foot four. I hadn't noticed this earlier because it was only now that he was standing eight inches away from me!
Ostensibly, he didn't even know what I was going to ask him about. He probably had an idea, but up until that point I'm just joe on the street. So here we have our friendly neighbourhood police officer, there to be a part of the community (PDF warning), staring down a member of the public and violating their personal space while politely saying hello.
I hope he saw the "go fuck yourself" I was hiding behind my polite banter and smile.
"Yeah," I said rather cludgily, my words fast and my voice pitched high. I was waiting for you, "I mean, I have all night." On the surface I was saying that I was being patient and polite for him to finish his conversation with the folks on the patio. Underneath, I was telling him that he couldn't make me uncomfortable (at least not easily) or threaten me with delay tactics.
Since these guys had an important job to get to, I got right down to business.
"I was wondering why you guys asked the panhandler to move along there."
Officer smiley suddenly turned into officer frowny. The game was up, at least on his side. Thankfully he didn't have bad breath, because he was standing as close to me as an unfamiliar man could. The constable stood behind him across the sidewalk. I couldn't see him.
Without a pause after my question, Sergeant Frowny replied "because she was obstructing the sidewalk, somebody's going to trip and break either her ankle, or their ankle."
I paused to process this reply.
Me: "I... Okay. I accept your view. I disagree with it, but I accept it."As the conversation ended, I could see the constable behind the cop, on the other side of the sidewalk, almost on his toes trying to look over the sergeant's shoulder to see what was going on. I find this very curious. I guess he wanted to learn how to keep Ottawa's streets safe from one of the best.
Him: "You can disagree with it all you want. When it creates a danger, in the manner that they're doing it..."
Him: "...then we ask them to--we didn't even ask; we just walked up said 'hi', and she says 'I know I'm gonna move.'"
Me: "Okay. Thank you!"
It's so nice off Sergeant Couillard to think of the safety of this girl's ankle. Like any police officer walking the beat, he politely approached her and said hi. It was her choice to respond by getting up and leave--all he did was say "hi".
If he said 'hi' to her as "politely" as he said it to me--and he towered over me while I was standing, the girl had been sitting--does he really expect me to think that she had any choice but to leave? I mean, she doesn't want to end up like this girl, does she? [None of the cops in the linked post were either of the ones in this incident]
In addition to zoom's account in the above-linked incident, my other inspiration to stand up and approach the police about this incident is from Copwatch, which I've never done myself on any formal basis, but have heard of. In Ottawa, it's organized by Andrew Nellis (whom I've mentioned many times on this blog).
Kill Everything blogger Nik has a good post [among others; I've spent the last four hours enthralled by his blog posts... he also writes about Nellis] where he describes Copwatch and what it's like to be out on a patrol shift with Nellis:
"Copwatch happens all over the world. In Ottawa, it's a program where ordinary people put on florescent orange vests with COPWATCH written on them..."The police are (allegedly) there for people's safety, not to harass the vulnerable. I didn't want to intervene on the girl's behalf and possibly cause her undue trouble (which she obviously wanted to avoid), but I sure as hell wanted to let those cops know that what they're doing is bullshit.
You want to look out for her safety? Find her a place to live and a reliable source of income. Look after her stomach, not her ankle. And protect her from being harassed--of the hundreds of people who walked by her, the only two who seemed to be bothered by her was those two white men with shiny badges.