Being the new breed of young cop in the early 70’s, I was well prepared to innovate at every opportunity. Innovation, however, is not necessarily the handmaiden of reality.
Almost every city officer had to walk the beat at some point in my younger days and my fondest memories are of Weston Road in west end Toronto. A tavern, variously referred to as the ‘bucket of blood’ or ‘The Weston Drunk Tank’ was a major problem. It was my job to be on hand at closing time to keep order and make sure the drunks didn’t drown; a good number managed to stumble over the Humber River embankment or into the fast flowing river, which was just behind the tavern. And, it might be suspected, not necessarily on their own volition.
There were only three kinds of beat officers back then — those who had working radios, no radios or had found an excuse not to carry one. The ‘portable’ radios weighed as much as your average brick and invariably communicated that way when you really needed them.
Patrol sergeants would ensure at the beginning of each shift that each radio-less beat officer had at least two dimes so they could check in with the station at appointed times.
When I found a drunk who had deteriorated to the level of primal sludge, the general protocol was to drag the warm carcass to the nearest phone booth and use my departmental-issue dime to call a scout car to take him to the station cells. The drunk was lodged overnight and released the next morning, usually with no charges.
The overriding concern was for the safety of a person unable to care for himself. This was before the Bail Reform Act, which essentially took away this police power and rendered the bull pen or drunk tank obsolete. Today police can leave these people to freeze or die on the street, because they have that right.
One night I found a hapless drunk laying in my favourite alley — it was a great place, so dark that no one on the street could see me but I could see them. I prodded him awake and walked him out to the edge of the sidewalk — he was in particularly bad shape — and realized I didn’t have a dime to call in for a car. I remembered there was a fire hall on the next block that would not only have a phone but one other scarce commodity on night shift. Warmth.
“Sure, bring ‘em in,” the smiling fire captain said. “Need a coffee? It’s always hot and ready around here.”
I explained my dilemma and showed him the hapless shell of Jello I was supporting.
“Sure you can use the phone officer, but I might have a better solution for you. Why don’t you just let him sleep it off in the cells in the basement?”
Cells! In the basement of a fire hall? I’d heard of a disciplined management style but aren’t cells a little Draconian for misbehaving firemen?
The Captain explained that they once shared the hall with the old Weston Police Department pre amalgamation and the cells were still intact. Since some were used for secure storage he had the keys and noted two were never used.
“Wow!” I thought. This is the perfect answer — just leave the drunk in the cell until he sobered up and let him out. The captain promised to keep an eye on him. This was terrific. My very own personal drunk tank. Hey! No need to transport, leave my beat or do the paperwork — no glaring sergeant complaining about the smell in the police station and these guys were happy to baby sit.
The next night, when I found another drunk, I simply trotted him off to the fire hall. “Yes sir,” said the smiling captain, “only too happy to help out the long arm of the law. Get a cup of coffee after you lock him up.”
Oh yes! Everything is wonderful in a perfect world — until four days later, when I was called into the Inspector’s office. It turned out a sobered-up drunk complained about being “released” from the custody of the fire department.
I felt a slow, sinking feeling that told me this wasn’t going to be a commendation for a job well done.
The inspector pointed out many, many flaws in my innovative thinking. What would happen if a person in custody attempted suicide? Who would be responsible? As the proverbial light came on, my heart raced into my throat and I broke out into a cold sweat. “Someone tried to commit suicide?” I asked, in a voice I couldn’t recognize as my own.
No one actually had, the inspector admitted; he was more concerned about what the fire department was doing with my drunks. Apparently they put them to work before releasing them. Some had to clean the hall and one was made to clean up and wash two fire trucks while the fire fighters immediately returned to their bunks. The drunk was informed by the smiling fire captain that the local beat officer had said this was his penalty.
The sum total of what remains after a good idea meets reality is what we usually call ‘experience.’ The lessons that I learned included:
• A fire hall is still a good place to get warm;
• Never trust a smiling fire captain;
• Get the big picture before implementing an idea;
• Let fire fighters fight fires;
• A dime spent is eight hours pay saved.