Toronto Star file photo

A squad of police officers dedicated to catching drivers who endanger pedestrians and cyclists will soon be patrolling Toronto streets for the first time since 2013, amid ongoing deaths and serious injuries.

The Toronto Police Services Board on Thursday approved creation of a traffic enforcement squad — two teams, each with three officers and a supervisor, covering a morning shift and evening shift every weekday — smaller than one disbanded years ago after helping reduce collision numbers.

The unanimous vote followed sustained calls from some city councillors and safety advocates who said police had appeared to abandon traffic enforcement as pedestrian and cyclist deaths spiked. Thirty-four pedestrians have died in Toronto this year — the same number fatally shot.

Those advocates expressed shock and outrage when a report from Chief Mark Saunders revealed Toronto “does not currently have a complement of officers that are solely dedicated to enforcement duties on a daily basis,” with traffic services focused on crash investigations.

“How many of the innocent, loved human beings killed since 2012 would still be alive today?” Jessica Spieker, a member of Friends and Families for Safe Streets who suffered a broken spine and brain injury when a driver hit her in 2015, asked board members, holding up photos and reading names of Torontonians killed on the streets.

A day earlier Heather Sim, whose father Gary, a cycling advocate and retired accountant, was killed by a driver in 2017, asked the same question in an interview with the Star.

“If this (enforcement) team hadn’t been disbanded in 2013, would the man who hit my dad have been ticketed before — maybe hit with a big fine, or change his driving habits, or lost his licence? … Maybe he wouldn’t even have been driving that day. My dad could still be here.”

Supt. Scott Baptist of Toronto police traffic services told board members that all officers can and do write traffic tickets, even if there was no squad dedicated to that purpose.

He said the report his team helped write perhaps suggested too strongly that disbandment of the Strategic Targeted Enforcement Measures (STEM) team was the key factor in a steep drop in traffic tickets being issued.

In fact, STEM members were writing about 80,000 tickets a year, he said. By 2018, the annual number of tickets issued by officers overall plummeted to just over 200,000, from a peak of 700,000 in 2010.

“The rest of that drop is attributed to the difference in (overall) staffing levels in Toronto police service,” Baptist said. The report notes the service lost 805 positions between 2011 and 2018, “making front line policing response to emergency calls for service a priority.”

After the team disbanded, the number of collisions started rising, from less than 60,000 a year to almost 80,000 in 2018.

Keagan Gartz of advocacy group Cycle Toronto said police failed Torontonians by not treating road safety as a priority with dozens of people, many of them senior citizens dying while crossing mid-block, dying every year and many more suffering serious injuries.

“Enforcing traffic safety is policing — this is not a special project,” she told reporters, welcoming the new squad but calling for increased staffing to at least that of its predecessors.

Saunders had recommended the new squad be traffic officers with other duties working on overtime, funded for one year with $1 million from the city’s “Vision Zero” budget for measures aimed at eliminating pedestrian and cyclist deaths.

Mayor John Tory convinced fellow police board members that the team should start as soon as possible on that basis, but that the squad be made permanent and funded from the Toronto police budget as soon as possible, starting with the 2020 budget.

Police said the cost would be about the same, at a $1 million per year.

Tory said the work of the enforcement squad, handing out a high volume of tickets in high-risk areas identified through data analysis, will be complemented by technology. The city is doubling the number of red-light cameras and will introduce photo radar as soon as the Ontario government gives approval.

Fellow board member Councillor Frances Nunziata says the enforcement team will be in high demand. She gets many calls from residents demanding unsafe drivers be stopped.

“Nobody stops at a red light now,” she said. “Drivers are more aggressive.”

Source: The Toronto Star