July 1, 2008 at 5:28 AM EDT
For 14 years as a forensics officer, Ross Lindsay stood in seedy apartments, back alleys and bushes, training his lens on the bloody results of human degeneracy.
This night, the affable sergeant is standing on a high-performance power boat, pointing and shooting at a decidedly different subject: fireworks exploding overhead as the sun sinks along Toronto's waterfront.
"The opportunity came along down here to try something completely different," Sgt. Lindsay says of his transfer to the Toronto Police Marine Unit a few years ago. "And believe me, this is completely different."
While loath to call it a plum job, he concedes that a marine unit posting is considered "highly desirable" among the city's 5,500 police officers, a lucky 1 per cent of whom report for duty at the Queen's Quay boathouse.
The reasons are obvious. While their land-bound comrades sweat out the summer catching speeders and busting bad guys, marine officers skim the cool blue waters of Lake Ontario, serving and protecting a mostly affluent, courteous and law-abiding public.
On Lake Shore Boulevard, a traffic stop might earn a middle-finger salute. On the lake itself, it's more likely to earn an invitation for after-work drinks.
At least that's how it seems on a cool but pleasant recent evening in the inner harbour, where the fireworks compete with a military search-and-rescue demonstration to be the highlight of the night.
Making sure boaters keep a safe distance from each event is the most serious action Sgt. Lindsay's platoon will see on this shift.
" Securité, securité, securité," he says into the handset of his VHF radio, employing the standard French-accented term that precedes marine safety alerts. "This is the Toronto Police Marine Unit. We are closing the Western Gap from twenty-thirty to twenty-one-hundred hours."
Moments later, when a small sailboat carrying three middle-aged couples ventures into the forbidden zone, Sgt. Lindsay and partner Constable Rob McConnach set off to intercept them in their high-powered Zodiac RHIB (rigid-hulled inflatable boat).
The twin 300-horsepower motors barely stir from their slumber in the few seconds it takes to reach the errant craft.
"Where are your PFDs?" the sergeant asks in a friendly tone, noting that none of the passengers are wearing personal flotation devices. When one of the women assures him they're stowed on board as required, he replies, "You should be wearing them," though it's not mandatory.
As they nod and return sheepish smiles, the woman tells the police that it's martini night back at the National Yacht Club, if anyone's interested later. With a hearty laugh and a "thanks," Sgt. Lindsay declines and sends them on their way.
"It's a more professional boater down here," he says back at the main waterfront station, where most of the 15-vessel fleet is moored (others operate from Bluffers Park Marina, Centre Island and the Humber River).
That's down here, as opposed to up there in cottage country, where Ontario Provincial Police marine officers deal with more casual weekend boating, which often means more drinking and recklessness.
Last Saturday, 24-year-old Steven Hamel of Oakville fell from a speedboat on Lake Muskoka and died, leading police to charge a 25-year-old Bracebridge man with impaired operation of a vessel and criminal negligence causing death.
Already this year, the OPP have seen 12 deaths from 10 boating incidents, three of which involved alcohol. Last year at this time, there had been four boating deaths.
Toronto, where about 40,000 boats pass through the inner harbour in a typical season, hasn't seen a boating fatality in two years, and out of 1,925 vessels inspected by the marine unit in 2006, just one operator drew an impaired charge. That same year, the OPP stopped 29,626 boats and laid 62 impaired counts — about four times as many charges by comparison.
"Back when I started in the 1970s, liquor was a real bad problem," says Constable Scott Cornett, a 30-year Toronto marine veteran who now fields calls at the station. "You'd go out there and you could have a charge within five minutes; now, you might see a couple of impaired charges go through in a summer and that's it."
That's not to suggest Toronto's plum policing job lacks juicy bits. It's just, as Sgt. Lindsay says, "different."
Just this week, a body surfaced near Ontario Place, a not-uncommon occurrence along the waterfront, where the marine unit recovered 18 corpses in 2006. Most are suicides and most appear in spring, when shallow waters begin to warm. This triggers decomposition, which creates the gases necessary for a body to float up from the lake bottom.
Then there are the live ones, such as sailors who have become lost in fog, stranded in a disabled vessel or tossed overboard in bad weather, or drunken yahoos who figure they can swim ashore from the island ferry or one of the 40 party boats that ply the harbour in summer.
"The complaints tend to be noise," Sgt. Lindsay says, adding that the marine unit also serves Toronto Islands residents. "The great thing lately is that [party boats] go south of the island and point the noise that way," away from the 800 people who live there. Still, "some of them are constant concerns for us."
This night, the sergeant has only smiles and waves for the well-dressed, and apparently well-behaved, celebrants aboard the half-dozen party boats in the harbour.
With 1,200 square kilometres of open water to cover — an area twice the city's size — the unit conducts plenty of rescues. In 2006, it helped 95 vessels in distress and responded to 122 medical emergencies.
Lesser-known but also gratifying are animal rescues (officers plucked a flailing deer from the harbour a few weeks ago and deposited it safely on the Leslie Street spit) and organ deliveries to transplant hospitals, achieved through a relay with other police services that patrol the lake between Hamilton and Toronto, to avoid road congestion on the Queen Elizabeth Way.
"That's actually one of the nice things to do," Sgt. Lindsay says.
Not quite so nice are the cross-border criminals they intercept on occasion, often in concert with the RCMP, OPP, neighbouring municipal forces or American authorities, with whom they train and communicate regularly.
"The international border is only 13 kilometres away," says Staff Sergeant Ronald Tapley, Sgt. Lindsay's superior, who oversees the unit. And the RHIBs' top speed of 90 kilometres an hour makes it feel that much closer.
While officials on both sides of the border declined to provide specifics of illicit cross-border activity on Lake Ontario, a press release from the U.S. consulate in Toronto in October of 2006 suggests that it is brisk.
In 2005, volunteer American pilots, including "business executives, engineers, surgeons and retired military personnel," began flying missions over the lake from the U.S. Coast Guard's air station in Detroit, according to the release. Within months, Toronto's marine unit had intercepted illegal guns and drugs bound for the city as a result.
By the end of the 2006 flying season, 130 American vessels had been found in Canadian waters illegally and more than 100 charges had been laid in connection with stolen property, counterfeit money and explosives found on board. Two cases of human smuggling were also uncovered and referred to federal officials.
THE GOOD GUYS
Thrilling as all of that sounds, most of the marine unit's business is of the helping kind — from searching for lost kids on the waterfront or along the city's inland rivers and creeks, to finding boaters who fail to show up on shore when they should.
In the days before GPS and radar, needles and haystacks had nothing on these guys.
The unit's senior member, Sgt. Leo Parwicki, joined the Toronto Harbour Police in 1969 (the marine unit absorbed the THP in a 1982 amalgamation).
"We went from wooden boats that leaked and were classic and creaked and sunk, to fibreglass, to aluminum now," he says.
"We had a compass and a police radio, and we'd piece together where we thought they were, and we'd go out there in the fog and we'd find them."
Unlike land-based police calls, which are handled by dispatchers at a central communications centre, distress calls from boaters are forwarded to marine unit officers, whose knowledge helps them to ask the right questions of lost boaters who lack sophisticated navigational aids.
"They'll say, 'I can see the CN Tower,' " Sgt. Parwicki says of boaters with dead motors, which isn't particularly helpful in locating them. "We'll say, 'How far offshore do you think you are?' and they'll say, 'Five miles,' and it turns into 20 or 25 miles."
Officers will then ask boaters to drop a line to determine the water's depth, then scan their charts for possible corresponding locations. "We've had people put an anchor over in a thick fog and find they're 25 feet offshore," Sgt. Parwicki says, while some are in water so deep that their anchor doesn't touch bottom.
Police narrow the search field further with questions about landmarks that boaters can see or sounds they can hear, and if that doesn't do the trick, they can call in help from civil aviators from the island airport, and in extreme cases, the 424 Squadron from Canadian Forces Base Trenton, central Canada's elite search-and-rescue team.
This night, the 424s are in town with a CH-146 Griffon helicopter, for a rescue demonstration with the Toronto Fire Service, which operates its own marine station just west of the police boathouse.
Sgt. Lindsay and Constable McConnach have seen this show before, in which a pair of airmen are dropped into the lake, plucked by the chopper and deposited to the deck of a fire or police boat, but their smiles suggest they never tire of it.
"I'm doing things now that I just never dreamt I'd be doing," Sgt. Lindsay says, adding, one last time, that "it's a different sort of policing that we're doing down here."
Commentary in the Globe and Mail
Ottawa Mens Centre.com, from Ottawa, Canada wrote: The statistical comparison to the OPP is unfair. The OPP deal with widely different areas and different customers throughout Ontario. Toronto waters are typically a more wealthier crowd. That does raise a few questions. The article talks about all the after hours invitations that officers receive. Is anyone going to say that the officers never drink at such social activities? More to the point, would anyone actually say that a Toronto Water cop actually drank at their place and actually got in a boat or car and left?