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What it’s really like: Being a Toronto police officer

Last Updated Jun 11, 2016 at 12:30 pm EST

Toronto Police 14 Division investigate a domestic call on an early morning in April. CITYNEWS/Alanna Kelly

The old floorboard creaks as a tall, burly, man, with a scruffy beard comes barging out of the painted green door. The hallway is stuffy in the old apartment building near Parkdale neighbourhood. It’s just after 10 p.m. on Saturday night and many of the neighbours poke their heads out to eavesdrop while others flee from the scene and wait outside for the incident to be over.

An ambulance waits outside the apartment with its lights on. A woman without socks or shoes waits, a chunk of flesh exposed on her head after her black hair was ripped out. Her boyfriend came home late after a night at the bar and she found messages to another woman on his phone. When she approached him about it, he attacked her.

Aged, brown walls surround the police officers in the hallway, the only exit is now 50 feet behind them. Abruptly the man comes closer and raises his arms while simultaneously yelling at the officers.

“Ha – three against one, let’s go,” he bellows.

The situation is too tight for the officers to use a Taser, and pepper spray would only leave the officers struggling in a mist that burns like hot sauce in your eyes. It would impact the officers more than the man who had been drinking.

In the blink of an eye, everyone is pinned against the floor, wrestling against each other in the cramped hallway. The man slammed into the female officer during the commotion and it is hard to determine who is who in the brawl.

“Give us the knife,” yells one of the officers. “Stop resisting.”

The brawl lasts only a few seconds, but the eerily-silent hallway makes the situation even more uncomfortable to those watching from their apartment doors. More uniformed officers have arrived in the hallway now. One of the original officers gets the man in handcuffs and says he is ‘HBD’ – has been drinking. A paramedic assesses the man for injuries and then place him into a police vehicle.

Inside the ambulance the woman is providing her side of the story to one of the younger police officers. His demeanor is calm and collected; he speaks just above a whisper. The woman agrees to give a video statement back at the station, the best form of evidence in court. Unfortunately, it is common for the victims to refuse pressing charges even after they call police.

As the woman exits the ambulance and walks barefoot toward the apartment to gather her things, her boyfriend can be heard viciously banging on the door inside the court vehicle as it pulls away down the narrow street.

The two street lights act as a spotlight on top of the officers as they discuss the incidents that unfolded. They plan their next moves and actions. One will ride with the victim to the station, two will ride in the larger vehicle with the suspect and 14 Division Sergeant Nelson Barreira will continue doing loops of the neighbourhood going over and over in his head what happened, just like he does every day on the job, for every call.

Barreira can recall everything; the details of the incident, how his officers responded and if everyone was safe. “Somebody has called you and the other person that didn’t call you is upset that you are there, you can’t just walk away – you have a job to do,” he says. On April 9, Barreira’s platoon received four domestic calls in a span of four hours.

A lot of the calls Toronto police attend are normal people having really bad days, and once everything calms down, they often apologize for their behaviour. Barreira describes them as horrible days – someone may be in a crisis, or someone broke up with someone or someone just lost their job.

“Their worst days might be once or twice in their lifetime. We are dealing with everyone’s worst day every day,” he says.

Barreira’s eyes are focused forward on the road with his left hand holding the steering wheel at 11 o’clock; his right hand is on the speaker dial tuning it up and down – always listening to the calls and on alert for a serious call, also called a hotshot.

“We don’t get called when the BBQ is nice,” said Barreira with a chuckle. “We get called when somebody gets drunk and starts acting stupid, that’s when police get called to the BBQ.”

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14 Division is considered one of the smallest divisions by land size, but is one of the busiest divisions in all of Toronto, representing 138,000 people. It extends south from the Toronto shoreline to the Canadian Pacific Railway Line on the north, east from Spadina Avenue and west to Dufferin Street.

The division has a number of rough areas filled with everyday crimes but also family areas with everyday people. It’s comprised of everything from nightlife and condominiums to rooming houses and community housing. Barreira said there is always something going on and police respond to calls about thefts, noise complaints, domestic disputes, homicides, robberies, accidents, drugs – everyday minor stuff.

Barreira’s platoon is made up of 24 officers and they go through a cycle of different shifts; days, afternoons or overnight shifts, working seven shifts in a row with six days off. Many officers work seven days on, four days off, seven on due to extra court appearances.

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Barreira grew up in this neighbourhood, and he circles the streets of the division with uncanny familiarity. His left arm hangs out the window as his eyes trace over each house, alleyway, vehicle and object. He pulls into a vacant recreation centre and recalls the days his friends would rush there after school to stay out of trouble. His family lived just a few streets over and his school was up the street, just past the best sandwich shop in town.

“It’s like coming back home,” Barreira said.

His summers were spent working at multiple recreation centres and pools in the area, and he always enjoyed working with different people. Barreira saw other people’s success as a way to motivate himself. He’s been on the force for just under 14 years now, starting out as a police constable, working his way to a plain-clothes officer and then onto the Guns and Gangs squad before just recently becoming a sergeant.

“You are helping people, trying to help the community,” he said. “Every day is a new challenge. You never know what you are going to get. It’s always changing, keeps you on your toes. It keeps you motivated. You are always learning on this job.”

A hurling scream pierces through the police radio, a deafening cry from a woman. It’s the first call of the night since he got into his squad car for the overnight shift. He doesn’t drink coffee or even take a break and regularly works 10 hours a day, seven days in a row, not including extra duties or paperwork. But he doesn’t need the caffeine; the adrenaline rush keeps him going.

He turns the radio dial down to weaken the scream. He’s heard it millions of times and it doesn’t seem to faze him. He often says to himself that he can’t even make up some of the things they see on the job, and reminds himself that truth is stranger than fiction.

Four officers are each holding a limb to stop the woman from hurting herself on the side of Spadina Avenue. An officer strolls over to Barreira and tells him the woman was found walking in the middle of Spadina and a TTC officer contacted them. She has been biting, kicking and screaming – trying anything to get the officers off of her. One moment she is laughing, saying she loves them, the next cursing and fighting. She is missing one of her shoes and looks as if she has not bathed or brushed her hair in weeks.

Collectively, they make the decision to call an ambulance because they know she will kick out the glass windows of a police car and the paramedics will be able to asses her mental health. Police are continuously dealing with people who have mental health issues and each officer deals with it his or her own way, there is no golden rule.

As Barreira is pulling away from the scene, another call comes over the radio for arson at a women’s shelter. Firefighters are filtering up the stairs to the top floor of the old building that resembles an elementary school with bright blue walls and yellow trim. The staircase leads to the top floor where a shower curtain has been set on fire for the second time this month.

A film of white powder covers the entire washroom from the fire extinguisher, and a pungent, lingering odour remains in the air. Once everything is documented the officers will start a report on file in case the person comes forward or the staff can reveal who started the fire. One woman remaining upstairs as the officer arrived scurried away, almost falling over her own feet in fear. Seeing people on their worst days is a regular occurrence for officers in Toronto.

“You see people that are at a low stage of their life and you want to help but you can only do so much,” Barreira said. “You can help them get to a shelter or help get them services, but you’re not going to solve their problem that day.”

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Entertainment call-back shifts in 14 Division take place on Friday and Saturday nights, the nights the streets are most rowdy and filled with people. The shifts are always overtime for officers and were created to “keep a lid on things,” reducing the number of service calls.

“We don’t have enough manpower to be having cars all night, we can dedicate one car but we can’t have four or five cars dedicated to it,” Barreira said. During these shifts, police will walk or bike to keep a close eye on laneways and the back of clubs.

Barreira spins the car around at the Spadina border and starts traveling up Bathurst Street when dispatch comes over the radio for a fight at a club on King Street. His heart starts racing and the adrenaline jolt is coming, but he calmly turns on the sirens, spins the car around and zips through the busy city traffic.

The feeling is like going from zero to hundred, Barreira explains.

A handful of men got in a fight outside of the club EFS, with one claiming to have a gun. Four cruisers respond to the scene and are pursuing a young man by foot. Barreira knows how important it is to learn all the divots of his division and as he spins down a side street he sees a young male in his 20s pop out of a back alley with his head ducked down.

His shiny, fire-hydrant red high-top sneakers make him impossible to miss. Barreira jumps out of the vehicle leaving his door open and calmly asks the man to show him his hands. Red Sneakers ignores him, trying to deke past. Barreira doesn’t waver in his tone, shifts over a few feet and blocks the man from leaving.

“When I first started you went from zero to a hundred, your heart always races, but now you kind of catch yourself, saying I can slow this down a bit,” recalled Barreira. “It is just with experience, because you start to say last time this happened I was able to do this, maybe it’ll work this time.”

The young man won’t make eye contact with Barreira; it’s as if he doesn’t exist.

Two more cruisers pull up and Barreira gets the young man’s hands on the wall above his head. He keeps taking one hand off, reaching for something near his waist, first the left then the right.

“The more I have been on this job, the more you keep yourself from hitting that peak level,” Barreira recalls.

They cuff the man and place him in the cruiser. He still hasn’t looked any of the officers in the face; he stares down at his red sneakers, not saying a word.

Officers start to rummage through over 16 bins of garbage with flashlights drawn, throwing cardboard boxes to the side and looking in leftovers from a Chinese restaurant. The smell is rancid and sour, but they move quickly. The suspect did not have a wallet or any identification, but they found a chain about the size of a fist in his pocket that had been ripped off during the fight with the markings of Hells Angels on it. He admitted he was from out of town, visiting on a Wednesday night from Hamilton.

The officers know if the club doesn’t want to press charges and no firearm is found, the man will be released. The club owners tell them they know he is with the Hells Angels and say “we deal with things our own way.” They decide not to press charges and want the cruisers to clear out.

As the officers go to release the man, one of them leans over as he opens the door and says “there you go my friend, how are you getting home?” At the same time, another man walks over and starts spewing vulgarities at the officers saying “I make more money in a day than any of you pigs.”

Barreira says this part is hard sometimes, hard not to take personally. “It’s gotten easier to take it, that it’s not a personal attack, it’s the uniform that they are attacking.” He adds that in many other jobs if you are getting sworn at or mistreated you can walk away or hang up and say you don’t deserve to be treated that way, but as an officer you can’t do that.

“As a police officer you can’t say ‘you know what you are yelling, you are swearing at me, I am not going to deal with this treatment, I am going to walk away.’ You can’t always do that when you are there for a service,” he said.

Officers are obligated to act.

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The sun is starting to peek over the downtown Toronto buildings as the clock is approaching 6 a.m. on Sunday morning. The officers have just over thirty minutes left in their overnight shift when the dispatchers voice comes over the radio: A woman has just had her finger bitten off by her boyfriend.

Two officers head to the hospital to see if she wants to press charges while the rest of the platoon arrives at the condominium. They can’t enter the unit unless they get court approval so they set up outside, waiting for her to press charges or until the man leaves the unit.

Barriera’s personal cell phone starts to ring as one of the officers at the hospital is calling to update him; The woman doesn’t want to press charges. So they wait, work a few hours of overtime and will turn in once the next crew arrives.

“You want to help, you want to do everything you can, being human, and you can’t resolve their issue for them. You feel for this person … but you also feel you can only do so much,” Barreira says.

Truth is stranger than fiction.