Employing a technique used by other police forces, officers in Halton Region, just west of Toronto, dressed up as street people and approached vehicles to determine if drivers were talking on handheld phones or texting.
Yesterday, Halton Regional Police ended a four day blitz to go after drivers who illegally use handheld electronic devices while operating their motor vehicles.
Under Ontario law, any driver who is in a lane of traffic and using a handheld device is committing an offence. It doesn't matter that the vehicle is not moving because it is stopped at a red light or stuck in gridlock, a normal occurrence in and around large centres such as Toronto.
Some officers dressed as panhandlers and approached vehicles stopped at red lights. These undercover cops carried crudely made cardboard signs, just like panhandlers who hit up stopped drivers for money do. Usually these signs begin the words, "Hi, I'm Constable so-and-so."
Drivers who are talking on a handheld devices or texting have a tendency to throw their devices down or otherwise hide them if they see a uniformed officer. But an approach made by a hobo cop has the opposite effect. While some people do give money to panhandlers, many others refuse to look them on the eye; they pretend they don't see them and don't bother reading what is written on their signs. An effective way to pretend not to see a panhandler is to be busy talking on the phone or looking down and texting away.
If an officer sees someone using a device, he or she pulls the badge they carry around their neck out and gently knock on the window to get the driver's attention. Then the driver is directed to go where uniformed police officers are waiting to write up tickets.
Not everyone is pleased with this particular tactic. John Clarke, head of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), was quoted in the Ottawa Citizen as saying, We don't want to give panhandlers a bad name by people thinking they're cops. They are displacing people who are trying to survive by panhandling. The level of social cutbacks is such that, for panhandlers, there are no survival margins at all. And from a general decency point of view, it's a sneaky and unsavoury tactic.
Needless to say, police that have employed hobo cops see the program as beneficial. Halton Regional Police Sgt. Chantal Corner was quoted in the National Post as saying, It's the texters that are the most dangerous and they're the most difficult to catch. Cell phone users, you can see them holding their phone up to their ear, but those texting—you see them driving around with their head down but you can't see the device. It's hard to prove they were texting. By the time we pull them over they have put it away and are denying it.
As reported by Inside Halton, police consider the blitz, named Project Disconnect, to have been a success. During the four days, Halton officers handed out 362 provincial offence notices, 301 of which were for distracted driving. This was up from the 207 distracted driving tickets handed out during last year's blitz.
Those convicted of distracted driving face a fine of $155.