While private security guards have no special powers on public property, some have learned to use the citizen's arrest, people's ignorance of the law and informal cooperation by police to powerful effect.
Cycling up Dufferin late one night, I stop to rip down one of those plastic junk signs found everywhere these days nailed to telephone poles and traffic signs.
A black car rolls up, and someone who looks like a police officer announces, "You're under arrest - vandalizing private property."
I read his shoulder badge: Street Watch.
"Put your hands where I can see 'em," he orders, immediately cuffing my left wrist.
I'm getting scared. "There's no way I'm going anywhere with you until I see some identification," I stammer.
"I'm authorized to arrest you," says bulletproof vest.
Things get out of hand. He tries to twist my other arm behind my back to cuff me, wrestling me to the ground, eventually chaining me to a nearby fence.
Soon, he's urgently requesting backup on his bulky radio.
He's a security guard.
He takes my ID and reels off my info over the radio.
"So you don't have a record? Well, in seven months you will for the rest of your life."
The police are sharing my info with this guy?
Clearly enjoying himself, he stamps on my free hand with his boot. "Resisting arrest. You're going to be fingerprinted and go to jail...."
Another Street Watch guard pulls up and endures an exaggerated account of the big bust.
After 30 minutes, police arrive.
Police often view guards suspiciously as low-paid competition or, worse, gung-ho wannabes, but that doesn't stop the collaboration. A 2005 Law Commission of Canada report on the overlapping roles of public police and private agencies found that the latter frequently compile and share personal info databases with police, who increasingly (informally) return the favour.
According to OCAP organizer A.J. Withers, "It's intimate cooperation."
Withers has received complaints about Intelligarde Security detaining people on public space, but she adds, "People don't know the law." They think guards have the power to push them around.
And you're likely to run into these would-be enforcers more often these days: Toronto Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) like Liberty Village, Emery Village and Kennedy Road now employ them, particularly for night patrols that focus primarily on property protection.
Last September, a three-week pilot project by the Chinatown BIA put Intelligarde Security on streets and in laneways to target public disorder offences - and the guards will be back again this summer.
"Police response times are too slow," argues BIA chair Stephen Chan, who would prefer to see more officers trade their comfy cruisers for bicycles.
"Chinatown has a high number of shelters for homeless people. These characters are not dangerous, but sometimes they loiter and cause other problems."
In fact, according to Intelligarde founder Ross McLeod, his "parapolice" "dealt with" more than two dozen panhandlers during the pilot.
While Mayor David Miller publicly condemned the pilot project, local councillor Adam Vaughan argues, "There's a balance between marginalizing [people who are] down on their luck and civility on the street."
He's heard no complaints. "Is it different than a mall, the TD Centre?"
It takes just $80 and a clean record to earn a security guard licence in Ontario. True, the province has promised mandatory training following a botched takedown by an untrained Loblaws guard that resulted in the death of Patrick Shand in 1999. But though legislation was passed three years ago, there's no implementation date.
Training might have prevented Shand's death.
Sociology professor Randy Lippert of the University of Windsor notes that the low-paid security industry attracts many "who want to be police officers but can never be." Some hope experience bringing in offenders will increase their odds of being chosen by the force, or will earn its cooperation.
Lippert also warns that in the U.S., private security for the wealthy is eroding support for the public system of policing.
But there are limits to the reach of privately funded guards. On public property, they are just private citizens, like anyone else, and can make a citizen's arrest but only for a serious offence. They have no authority to write tickets, detain you for panhandling or ban you from public streets and sidewalks.
No one in Ontario keeps track of how many such incidents or arrests by Ontario's 56,500 private guards have occurred on public space.
But last November, before Vancouver decided to spend $872,000 to expand private security patrols in several areas under BIA direction, a report surveying 154 people from the Downtown Eastside found that 58 per cent of encounters with private guards were on public streets.
The report said official-looking uniforms tricked respondents into believing guards had the authority to remove the poor, homeless and Aboriginals, using tactics ranging from a stern "Move along" to threats and the use of force.
The motivation for cash-strapped cities is simple. A typical hired guard earns about $10 an hour, a contracted police officer about $60. Vancouver leveraged its "policing" dollars by combining them with existing BIA money, but while both pay, it's the BIAs that administer the program. No wonder respondents felt guards were there to protect merchants (their employer) and not themselves.
Further blurring the line between police and security guards is the fact that companies often hire off-duty cops.
Back at the scene of my near arrest, the police constable doesn't reprimand the security guard for using unnecessary force, instead demanding that I apologize and never do it again, so we can put the incident behind us.
When I protest that I've done nothing legally or morally wrong, the officer warns, "I have discretionary powers," later clarifying (incorrectly) that he could ticket me for not wearing a bike helmet. Rogue or not, it seems the guard is one of them.
Of course, instead of complaining, I could always buy my own licence, bypass the over-policed usual suspects and target drivers in bike lanes, sign companies trashing public space and bosses stiffing their employees.
Why wouldn't the police be just as cooperative?
• Security guards can only make a citizen's arrest for an indictable (serious) offence or when witnessing a crime in progress.
• They can't arrest or ticket for loitering, non-aggressive panhandling, or dumpster diving on public space.
• They can't make you move along or ban you from public space.
• They can't read your ID without your permission.
• When a police officer is contracted by a private company, he or she has no special powers on public property and cannot claim to be a police officer.
• Guards must provide their licence number when asked.
IF YOU HAVE A COMPLAINT
• Get the guard's name or number and security company. Complain in person or mail your written complaint to: Private Security and Investigative Services Branch, 777 Bay Street, 3rd floor, Toronto M7A 2J6. 416-212-1650 or 1-866-767-7454.