Report: Fines issued for breaking pandemic measures top $5.8M, questions raised over 'snitch lines'
TORONTO -- Amid rising concerns that some COVID-19 containment measures are unfairly punishing vulnerable Canadians, a new report is shedding light on high fines and so-called “snitch lines.”
“Policing the Pandemic” has been mapping where individuals have received tickets for alleged COVID-19 related infractions across Canada.
In its most recent report, from May 1, the project revealed that around 4,575 people had been ticketed or charged in separate incidents related to breaking emergency pandemic orders.
These fines add up to more than $5.8 million to date, the report says.
The database is built on information from publicly available media reports, social media posts and police press releases -- which means the true number of tickets issued and fines collected could actually be much higher.
Tip lines have popped up all across the country to give citizens a place to report on others ignoring pandemic measures, such as people not observing physical distancing rules, or non-essential businesses remaining open. Some were opened after 911 lines kept getting clogged with reports.
Policing the Pandemic didn’t initially track these “snitch lines,” as critics call them, but added them to its project on April 29 after their research showed that they played “an important role.”
Including city-specific and province-wide tip lines, Ontario is the only province with more than two separate tip lines, according to media reports aggregated by Policing the Pandemic. A map on their website tracking tip lines shows Ontario as having 18 separate lines, but it is acknowledged in the report that this is “a conservative estimate,” and that there are probably more tip lines across the country.
“Already, we can see that these lines are having an impact on policing practice,” the report said.
It also alleged that “in a number of provinces, such as Alberta and Ontario, there are reports of police using geocoded data from residents’ reports to these tip lines to identify non-compliance “hot spots,” which are then … patrolled more frequently by officers.”
Policing the Pandemic is run by criminology researchers Alex Luscombe and Alexander McClelland. According to their website, their aim is to “track and visualize the massive and extraordinary expansions of police power” that have occurred in Canada during this pandemic.
Luscombe told The Canadian Press in mid-April that disproportionately ticketing people is more likely to impact those who don’t have the ability to self-isolate, or who might not have access to the proper information about COVID-19.
According to The Canadian Press, McClelland said that singling out individuals for fines, “individualizes our response.
“"It means we think we can point out one person and say, 'They are the person to blame -- put them away.' But what that does is that we don't ask broader questions.”
It’s abundantly clear from the advice of health officials that physical distancing and isolation measures are still our best chance at flattening the curve of the virus.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said on April 21 that the weeks we have spent under strict measures have “prevented an explosive outbreak,” in Canada. She emphasized that this means we should continue to practice physical distancing.
“We can’t let our guard down,” she said.
Projects such as Policing the Pandemic aren’t trying to contradict medical advice, but instead aim to examine current enforcement methods for pandemic measures, and ask whether they are helping or hindering the population.
The majority of enforcement measures have occurred in Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Alberta, in that order, according to the report. Quebec had the most by far, with more than 3,000 tickets given, with Ontario coming in at 930 and Nova Scotia and Alberta having 516 and 44 respectively.
Most of the ticketing within these provinces has been concentrated in major cities: 1,848 in Montreal, 594 in Toronto and 216 in Halifax.
These add up to very different price tags. An earlier report from Policing the Pandemic stated the average ticket price in Ontario for a violation was $880, while in Montreal, the average was $1,546.
According to the most recent report, fines in Quebec have reached almost $4.7 million, with the next highest province, Ontario, clocking in at around $700,000.
When asked on Monday during a media briefing about the rationale of fining Canadians so highly during this crisis considering many are in financial straits due to closures of businesses and workplaces, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would only emphasize that Canadians need to keep practicing physical distancing.
“The federal supports that we’ve given to workers, to families, to students, to people right across the country have been so that people can stay home,” he said. “So that they can engage in social distancing.”
He added that “different jurisdictions have different, more specific, rules suitable for their own jurisdictions and that is also why they have taken it upon themselves as a responsibility to ensure that those rules be followed for the protection of all Canadians.”
Although the city of Toronto has only given out 594 tickets to date, according to an update from the city posted on May 3, “bylaw and police officers have spoken to 13,676 people in City parks about the closures and public health measures,” since April 3.
On May 3 alone, the city said they received 184 complaints “involving people using outdoor amenities or not practicing physical distancing in parks or squares.”
Psychologist Genevieve Beaulieu-Pelletier told CTV News Montreal in March that people report others because it’s a way to regain control.
“We're in a state of powerlessness,” she said. “By calling the police, I'm trying to control what I can. It's a way to reassure myself.”
The type of infraction people are being ticketed the most for is a failure to comply with physical distancing or a failure to comply with minimal gathering rules.
According to Policing the Pandemic’s most recent report, a whopping 4,398 tickets were related to these infractions, meaning only around four per cent of the ticketing has been for other issues.
While the numbers might suggest that this means individuals are not practicing enough physical distancing, the details of some of the individual encounters paint an alternative picture. There have been reports of people being ticketed for sitting on public benches, using a pull-up in a park briefly, or even just walking in a park.
The city of Toronto had to put up a fact sheet on April 21 stating that they would “no longer be issuing tickets to people using park benches,” after reports of these incidents caused a backlash.
In some areas, new rules have been implemented regarding when a police officer can demand information from a civilian. On March 31, Ontario’s provincial government announced that due to the pandemic, officers would temporarily have the ability to require individuals to identify themselves if the officer believes they are not observing some section of Ontario’s emergency measures, such as improper physical distancing.
This means that if an officer believes two individuals are standing too closely together in a park, they can ask to see ID. If someone refuses, they could be fined $750 for “failure to comply with an order made under the [Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act].”
This was one of the charges levelled against a black man in Ottawa after he and his daughter were ordered to leave a park. Obi Ifedi told the Canadian Press that he felt singled out — many people were in the park, but as he was complying with the order to leave, a bylaw officer followed and harassed him. When Ifedi refused to give his name, he was tackled and punched by the officer, and ended up being fined around $2,000 in total.
The By-Law & Regulatory Service department for the city of Ottawa has denied any “improper conduct allegations.”
Montreal police also spurred outrage after they issued several tickets to homeless youth in early April, according to activists, despite the fact that people experiencing homelessness likely have nowhere to safely self-isolate, and are also unlikely to be able to pay a $1,600 ticket.
“Based on decades of research in criminology, we know that police interventions related to COVID-19 will not impact all people equally,” a white paper for Policing the Pandemic states.
“While social distancing and certain other state-imposed orders aimed at the containment of COVID-19 may be effective, punishment for breaking these rules by police and other law enforcement agents is not,” the paper says. “Policing only exacerbates and escalates crises, deterring people from seeking healthcare, while eroding the rights of dignity of targeted people.”
With files from the Canadian Press and CTVNews.ca's Cillian O'Brien