So much suffering seeps from the spooky walls of the old cop garrison in Regent Park, we can only rejoice that they're being pounded to dust. A few blocks south, a new 51 is being born, and with it hopefully a more humane approach to policing. How about a plaque at the old site to remind us how badly we failed this community?
Years of living dangerously
The old Toronto Telegram called 51 "dazzling" and the city’s most modern station when the two-storey bunker opened in 1954. The barred windows and barbed wire fence inspired another name among area residents: Fort Apache. The Detroit police department logo left over from a film shoot on the front door aside, 51 was as close as it got to cop justice American-style.
Stickers on old lockers in the bowels of 51 offer a glimpse of the twisted "us and them" mentality that pervaded the place. Among cops, being assigned to 51 was viewed as a demotion. It was a division where bad apples were sent. Police wildcat strikes to protest disciplinary actions and the infamous stories of suspects roughed up at Cherry Beach are only part of the story. A 1996 Regent Park community inquiry into policing catalogued beatings, racial slurs and sexual assaults on prostitutes by police from 51.
Focus on foul play
Former cops say the stories of prisoner abuse that slipped through the cracks in the station’s concrete walls were "all crap to sell newspapers." But 51 didn’t become one of the first stations outfitted with surveillance cameras by accident. After 51 became the city’s central lock-up for prisoners on their way to court, complaints about harsh treatment behind the 1-inch bars became too loud – and constant – for the authorities to ignore.
On the inside looking out
For cops up to the challenge, Regent Park provided the broadest policing experience in all the force. Most cops stationed at 51, however, felt like outsiders sent into "the armpit" of the city. In a 96 report to the police services board, consultant Jim Ward wrote that officers viewed Regent Park as a problem because of "lack of community respect" for officers and the scary fact that cops had "difficulty distinguishing good guys from bad guys."
On the dividing line
Concentrating too many disadvantaged people in one area makes little planning sense. Putting a cop shop in the middle of such a community, founded on 50s U.S. models of low-income housing, was asking for trouble. In this kind of situation, the amount of money poured into policing to control crime precludes adequate funding to address the area’s social ills. So it is with 51, which has more officers than any other division even though geographically it patrols the smallest area.
The 24 3-by-6-foot cells and "bullpens" at 51, mostly a holding tank for drunks in the 60s, gained a more notorious rep after two custody deaths in the early 70s, including that of a "jovial" 16-year-old who reportedly hanged himself with his own shirt. Anti-poverty activists, frequent visitors in the 90s, remember the cells for different reasons – the stale cheese sandwiches offered for lunch, and windows left open by cops during winter to keep inmates on ice.
Real cops don’t do community policing
Cops are not social workers, as force higher-ups are fond of saying, and nowhere was that truer than at 51, where the notion of community policing never got beyond posters and platitudes. The station that made famous the FIDO (Fuck it, drive on) credo opted instead for a destructive strategy of disengagement. So bad had the division’s rep become that in 1996 the police services board recommended a transfer system to rid the division of cops "who are not... genuinely concerned about community-sensitive and community-responsive policing."