Taking charge between the curbs

Nothing is more spectacular than a motor vehicle collision scene. Most citizens rarely see one so it’s a memorable event. If they are involved, they never forget it. A citizen seeing a well trained officer take control and work diligently to restore things to proper order is seen as nothing short of a miracle – everything from helping the injured to directing traffic is seen as wondrous.

Imagine my dismay when a story landed on my desk a while back relating how the Surrey Fire Department was tasked with the job of deciding whether to call police to motor vehicle collisions. This was in response to an under-staffed police agency answering far too many other calls. Surprised by this backward style of events I wondered what the local police are doing that is more important than motor vehicle collisions.

I worked most of my career as a traffic officer in Toronto. I was proud of helping people in need – much more than the five years I spent yelling at people in domestic disputes in the jungles of Jane and Finch. I have since concluded that the efforts of a well trained traffic officer does more to improve a community’s perspective on itself than any other aspect of police work. Let me explain why.

I went to a ton of collision scenes over my years and, before moving to dedicated traffic work, thought I was just doing a job for the insurance companies and gathering statistics for the transportation department – but then the penny dropped, so to speak.

Why did they want this information? The obvious answer – insurance companies want to help people in time of trouble and the transportation department wants to prevent people from getting hurt. Should I, as a police officer, be any less dedicated to these goals?

I soon realized that police did much more at collision scenes than my cynical compatriots espoused. The most important thing was helping people when they are dazed, confused, vulnerable and unsure about:

• Their (and others) safety and health,

• How they’re going to explain or justify their actions,

• What they will do next,

• What their insurance company (and tow truck driver) will do for/to them,

• Whether they will be charged or did anything wrong,

• How they’re going to get home,

• Who will contact their families.

Emotions usually ran high and having an officer there helped settle things down and brought a little order to a chaotic situation. It was very satisfying to ensure that my collision scene was settled and cleared in an expeditious manner and that few questions about what happened would go unanswered.

I was also proud that I could help injured people in immediate need, either by bandaging a cut, putting an arm in a sling or simply suggesting they see a doctor as soon as possible. The victim was grateful and onlookers were reassured their local police had good control of things.

In short the basic job of a traffic police officer is preventing good people from hurting good people. In regular police work, occurrences usually result from greed and anger. In traffic work, they’re generally a matter of ignorance, intolerance or impatience and only rarely greed or anger. A traffic officer’s job is to enforce traffic laws to prevent collisions or investigate collisions with a goal toward preventing future ones. This preventative factor should be taken seriously and can be accomplished in a myriad of ways.

A well enforced neighbourhood is a safe neighbourhood, ensuring courteous and patient motorists and obedient pedestrians. If you have neither, you have no functioning traffic officers; the number of collisions and injured citizens is the barometer. The police are responsible and the police must take action.

Keeping people from their own misadventure is a primary focus of police work. How many drivers feel they don’t have to come to a complete stop at a stop sign? How many youths believe they can drive like the stars in the Fast and Furious movies or drive perfectly well after drinking? How many people will over indulge with the consumption of legalized pot and drive? How many police agencies put traffic enforcement low on their priority list? The answer to all of the above… far too many.

Firefighters shouldn’t decide if police are needed at collision scenes because they are seen and act like good guys. They like being good guys and want everyone to see them as such. It wouldn’t take much pleading by an errant motorist to convince them to cut some slack and not call police. Not calling police serves no one.

If you feel cutting traffic officers is a good way to save money, consider that every citizen in your jurisdiction is affected by traffic. Having just a few motivated, well trained and highly visible traffic officers can go a long way toward removing a community’s angst about an orderly society.

As for the police in that B.C. community – they may be suffering from a modern day syndrome I might call scam-enomics. When one considers the annual slicing of the emergency services pie who will now get a better argument for a bigger piece? The police or fire department? If you thought you were understaffed and under-resourced before… just wait for it. On another word of caution to the Toronto Mayor and Police Chief. Given the foregoing remarks, whom do you want your citizenry to admire most? The police or your new “Traffic Warden Service?”

I can only urge police agencies to get their act together. YOU call the fire department to YOUR accident scene, not theirs. YOU own that turf between the curbs. Not firefighters or “Wardens”!