Fines issued to Toronto park users in early days of COVID-19 pandemic were 'generally unfair': ombudsman

Yellow caution tape cordons off park benches to prevent people from using them in Grange Park in downtown Toronto Friday March 27, 2020. (Joshua Freeman /CP24)

Toronto’s decision to issue hundreds of tickets to people found using closed park amenities in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic was “generally unfair” given the “fragmented” and “confusing” messaging around what was and wasn’t allowed, a new report from the city’s ombudsman has found.

Ombudsman Susan Opler conducted an enquiry into Toronto’s enforcement of COVID-19 rules in city parks over a six-week period in the spring of 2020 after receiving a series of complaints.

Her 99-page report released on Friday found that while the city had internal messaging “that clearly reflected what the public could and could not do in a park,” it’s public messaging lacked clarity and often wrongly lumped public health advice together with legal rules.

She said that the communication issues coupled with “inadequate training of by-law enforcement officers on how to equitably enforce” the rules created a climate where it was unfair for the city to be issuing tickets to people for violating COVID-19 rules in parks while had having the unintended effect of discouraging people from using parks altogether.

“The city communicated frequently about the COVID-19 rules for parks between April 2 and May 15, 2020. However, we found that overall, its communication was fragmented, confusing, and in some cases, inconsistent,” Opler wrote. “Park benches were a particular source of confusion. They were on the province’s list of closed amenities, but never on the city’s. The city knew people were confused about them, yet its messaging about park benches was inconsistent and unclear.”

Opler’s report detailed numerous cases of people being ticketed for accessing park amenities, including one incident not previously made public in which a Black person was stopped while walking inside High Park and then followed around by the officer for upwards of 25 minutes.

Opler said that a subsequent investigation by the city’s human rights office found that officer had “singled the complainant out because of his race, rather than based on reasonable suspicion that he was in violation of COVID-19 rules.”

The report also detailed other occasions in which individuals were ticketed “not for flouting the COVID-19 rules on the use of city parks, but for simply being unaware of them.”

In one instance, Opler said that two friends sat down at a picnic table in Trinity Bellwoods Park to drink takeout coffee when they were approached by two bylaw enforcement officers and handed separate $880 tickets.

In another instance, she said that a man and woman were walking through Thompson Memorial Park when the woman accidently fell. She said that the woman reported being “very emotional” that day because she had just lost her job and sat down on a bench next to a playground to calm down. Shortly after they sat down, Opler said that the couple were approached by bylaw enforcement officers who handed them each a ticket.

In both cases, the park benches were not cordoned off with yellow tape as was the case with other shuttered amenities in the parks, contributing to the confusion.

“We found that, until we intervened, the city did not give the public clear, coordinated and easy-to-understand information on what people could and could not legally do in parks, despite staff’s good faith intentions and efforts,” Opler wrote, referencing a May 12 letter that she wrote to City Manager Chris Murray seeking clarity. “This was unfair to all, specifically to people who got tickets in city parks.”

Confusion around ‘zero tolerance’ policy

Opler said that bylaw enforcement officers were initially told to exercise “judgment and discretion in their duties” when it came to enforcing the closure of park amenities but she said that some officers felt pressured to issue tickets after receiving several emails from Municipal Licensing and Services executives referencing a “zero tolerance” policy.

She said that there was also insufficient training around the enforcement of the new rules, which contributed to an environment in which they were not being evenly enforced.

“One officer told us that ‘zero tolerance’ meant officers were to ticket where someone failed to comply with a request to stop the prohibited activity. Another understood that ‘zero tolerance’ was to be applied only where safety was an issue, and yet another understood ‘zero tolerance’ to mean simply that education was over and to start issuing tickets,” her report notes.

Opler makes a total of 14 recommendations in the report, including the creation of an “organization-wide communications policy about changes to people’s access to city services and facilities.”

She also recommends that Municipal Licensing and Standards “immediately send clear and direct communication to all of its staff that zero tolerance is an unacceptable, unclear and unfair approach to enforcement."

The city has committed to adopt all of the recommendations.

In a letter dated sent to Opler, City Manager Chris Murray said that staff “faced significant challenges communicating and enforcing the numerous and changing COVID regulations and public health guidelines” at the outset of the pandemic.

He said that “acknowledging that and learning from it is a necessary part of the process of improving the manner in which the city serves its residents, even in the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic.”