Encounter with TAVIS police quickly escalated for four teens
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Four teenaged men — three with braces in place to straighten smiles — drape their sprouting frames over chairs in a stuffy second-floor room overlooking a common area in the Neptune Dr. public housing complex, where a police encounter they had went dangerously wrong.
No, they agree, they will never again try to exercise their rights when confronted by police.
On Nov. 21, 2011, the teens — twin brothers, then 15, and two friends, aged 15 and 16 — were walking in the common area, on their way to an after dinner Pathways to Education mentoring session. The much-lauded program helps keep kids in at-risk neighborhoods in school.
The Neptune Dr. housing complex sits within the Lawrence Heights area, one of the city’s 13 designated priority neighborhoods.
In an event that would quickly escalate to punches, a drawn gun, five backup cruisers and first-time arrests, an unmarked police van rolled into the parking area and two uniformed Toronto police officers with the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) unit emerged.
The officers, according to police records, were at the Neptune Dr. buildings to enforce the Trespass to Property Act on behalf of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation.
The four teens, all of whom live in the complex, had been stopped and questioned many times before by police. They had also all attended a moot court program, where they learned about their rights.
This encounter came off the rails when one of the teens attempted to exercise those rights and walk away.
Roderick Brereton, a youth worker and conflict management consultant who works in the Lawrence Heights area and knows the four teens well, said there had been noticeable improvement in the relationship between youth, the community and 32 Division police that patrol the area.
The arrests, he said, “pretty much crushes everything that had been built.”
The incident highlights the tension between youth who are constantly being stopped and questioned and Toronto police officers who are using a policing strategy that Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, in light of recent shootings, guaranteed would receive permanent funding.
It also underscores how police, in each of the city’s 72 patrol zones, disproportionately stop and document black and brown young men. Youth interviewed said they are stopped for no reason and feel criminalized.
In this case, all four of the teens are black.
They were each charged with assaulting police, and the young man who did not want to answer police questions was additionally charged with threatening death and assault with intent to resist arrest.
Although the charges against them were eventually withdrawn (in the cases for three of the four teens, a common law peace bond was sworn) they can’t be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
What ensued can be seen but not heard on Toronto Community Housing Corporation security cameras.
Moments after the police van pulls into the parking area, the teens exit one of the buildings and the officers, on foot, stop them. After a brief discussion, one of the officers pushes one of the twin brothers away from the three other teens and his partner. The officer punches the twin, pushes him further and the teen then drops to the ground.
Two of the teens make moves to help the twin brother, one of them getting close enough to touch the officer.
The officer then pulls his handgun and points it at the approaching teens, just as the other officer manages to grab hold of both of them and pull them back. He then appears to briefly point the gun at the twin on the ground, radios for backup and then holsters the firearm.
According to police records, that officer, Constable Adam Lourenco, considered the area to be a “high crime area” with drug activity and gun violence.
Lourenco, in his notes made after the incident, said he drew the gun because “I believe the males are going to attack me.”
The twin brother he arrested, Lourenco wrote in his notes, would not answer his question about whether they lived in the complex. “I don’t have to tell you s---,” the teen replied, according to Lourenco’s notes.
Lourenco wrote that he asked for identification and the teen refused and was “extremely excited and not listening to anything I’m saying.” He told the teen he was under arrest and took hold of him, and alleges in his notes, that the teen then spat in his face.
None of this can be made out on the security video, which has a distant view of the interaction, and the teens’ accounts of what happened differs from the police version.
There was no spitting and no swearing, said the teen who was punched.
“They stopped us and one officer came to the front and one officer came to the back,” he told the Star.
“One officer came towards me and wanted to search me. He said there was some sort of robbery or something. I said I’m not doing anything wrong. I don’t want to be searched, and that I’m going to be going, have a good day, or something like that.
“I was leaving. I just wanted to avoid the situation and just go. So, then he just got mad and said stop trying to act smart. He pretty much grabbed me and then started giving me shots to my stomach and punches, and he started pushing me.
“There was a balcony gate near me and he pretty much gave me one big haymaker and that brought me down.”
The teen said the officer then cut his own thumb on something sharp on his utility belt.
“When I was on the ground he grabbed me and said I’m going to go to jail for assaulting him. I have (his blood) on my jacket, a fingerprint. He grabbed me like this and just started wiping his blood on me.”
Police made no mention of a robbery in their notes. Lourenco did file an injury report and had a photo taken of his thumb, his notes indicate.
Lourenco did not respond to an email from the Star.
After Lourenco called for backup, a total of five cruisers responded. A small crowd of upset residents began to form. Parents and supporters later filled the lobby of 32 Division station, where the teens were being questioned.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire life,” said Brereton, who was at the station to offer his help. “We were treated as criminals. There were family members there and they were concerned and blatantly told to shut up and come back tomorrow.”
The twin who was punched was strip-searched and held overnight.
He was offered a number of plea deals, none of which were acceptable, he said. The final offer, which came after the video was disclosed, involved community work, no criminal record and a promise to keep the peace.
Lawyer Craig Bottomley, who represented the twin, said the security videos helped in the withdrawal of the charges but were not a “smoking gun” due to poor quality.
“The fact that all four young people told an exact account of what happened that did not jive with the police account was pretty persuasive in my eyes,” Bottomley said in an interview.
“This encounter never should have happened. My client was stopped leaving his home and investigated for trespassing. This was perverse.
“He rightly told the police that he did not have to co-operate with their investigation and the situation was quickly reduced to a violent encounter where a 15-year-old boy was taken to the ground and his friends had a firearm put in their faces.
“This was a gross overstep by the police that has left my client shaken and disillusioned.”
The teens are considering suing police.
“Given the possibility of a lawsuit, it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment at this time,” said Toronto police spokesperson Mark Pugash.
The teen who was punched said the arrest and charges caused people at his school to view him in a different light. He lost his job at a grocery store and his marks suffered because of interruptions for court appearances and meetings with his lawyer, he said.
He managed to get all of his credits by going to summer school.
In early July, he accepted the peace bond deal, mainly because it meant he could immediately hang out again with his two friends who were arrested. Part of the bail conditions were that he could not talk to them.
In late July, the four teens gathered at the complex for an interview, arranged by youth worker Brereton.
Before their arrests they had all taken a voluntary justice program, offered by the Ontario Justice Education Network. It ended with a mock trial before a real judge, and certificates were issued.
One thing the well-spoken young men said they learned is that they have rights during encounters with police.
“And then we learned that we didn’t have them,” said one of the teens, referring to the arrests.
“Everyone gets stopped in our area, because there’s lots of black people,” said the twin who was punched. “Lots of black people get stopped. Guys get stopped a lot more than girls.”
Asked if he would ever try to walk away from police again, the twin who was punched replied: “I’m not walking away and getting beaten up and charged again. If that video camera wasn’t there, I’d have no chance. It would be my word against police.”
The others agree that would be a bad idea.
TAVIS officers, deployed in pockets of the city where violent crime is taking place, do stop, question and document citizens at a higher rate than normal patrol officers.
A Star analysis of contact card data obtained in a freedom of information request shows that of the 1.27 million citizen contacts between 2008 and mid-2011, TAVIS stops accounted for 120,000 — or almost one in 10 — of those. That’s 32,000 more than the next highest police unit, which is a police division.
Chief Bill Blair has acknowledged in interviews with the Star that these encounters do not all go well. But he encourages all officers to proactively stop and document people and the people they are with.
Most of the contact stems from “general investigations,” traffic stops and radio calls.
Blair and others credit the TAVIS initiative, in part, for reductions in violent crime in certain neighborhoods.
The initial political response to the recent shootings on Danzig St. was an announcement of permanent funding for TAVIS. To be sure, there has also been talk of funding for youth programming and other social investments, including recommendations that have repeatedly been made over the years but tend to get less action and attention.
Critics question whether the violent crime reductions are lasting and worry that the disproportionate policing and documenting of youth in violent neighbourhoods is impacting public trust.
That is one thing the Toronto Police Services Board, in the wake of the Star series, has asked the city auditor to examine.
The four teens from Neptune told the Star that, collectively, they have been stopped and documented by police in their neighborhood on more than 50 occasions.
“They stop you, you know everything you have to tell them,” explained one of the teens. “Your height, your age, your weight, your address, your phone number, where you live, where are you going, where are you coming from.
“Sometimes, I don’t have ID and that’s when it’s kind of scary. Now I have my health card and my driver’s licence.”
The data collected in the police stops becomes part of a massive internal database that is used to find links to possible witnesses and suspects following a crime. It is also used, on occasion, in obtaining search warrants.
TAVIS, which began in 2006 following a spate of gun homicides, is Blair’s brainchild and is funded by the province.
In interviews with the Star, Blair has said that how these encounters turn out has much to do with the way officers approach those they choose to stop and document.
In February, a TAVIS officer was sentenced to a jail for assaulting and squeezing the testicles of a 21-year-old motorist he had pulled over in 2009 in what was deemed an unlawful search.
When the Star asked the four teens from Neptune Dr. — some have begun calling them the Neptune Four — if they notice a difference between TAVIS officers and regular patrol, they answered with an emphatic yes.
One said TAVIS officers are more “wild.”
If you see TAVIS on the side of a cruiser, said one of the teens, “you go run and hide. If you see TAVIS, it’s nightmares.”
For Brereton, it’s time to start over and help build back a more trusting relationship between the Neptune Dr. community and police.
“It paints the whole police force bad,” he said. “It’s just like certain people might paint our community as bad. You can’t judge obviously the whole force by one person, and you can’t judge our community by the acts of one or two people, either.
“But there’s something police can do in their approach, because, as you can see in this case, nobody walked up and gave a handshake.”