TORONTO – What do an umbrella, a wood-carving tool, a cellphone and a discarded suitcase have in common? They all prompted calls to Toronto police on Tuesday, adding to the constant stream of unfounded reports of suspicious activity that flood into the force daily.
But Const. Victor Kwong said officers would far rather field flawed reports of non-existent crimes than have the public look the other way, even if the resulting investigations can read like a comedy of errors.
Kwong said the number of disproven “suspicious activity” reports greatly outnumber the instances of actual crime called into police, who must respond to every occurrence. But he said he hopes the reports keep coming, adding that some calls can be the ones that save lives.
“There are times when it turns out to be real,” Kwong said in a telephone interview. “Luckily that is less frequent.”
Kwong said the stream of false reports that trickled in Tuesday are all in a day’s work for the force.
First came word of a potential suspicious package that turned out to be a person disposing of an old suitcase, he said. Next, police were summoned to investigate a report of a person with a knife. All they found was a man carving wooden figurines, Kwong said.
Soon after that, someone sounded the alarm about a person believed to be toting a large assault rifle across his back near a busy downtown expressway.
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Kwong said officers had their doubts about the validity of that report, since only one member of the public had phoned in the unusual sighting and such a potentially threatening situation would likely have prompted a flurry of similar calls.
But police investigated the scene all the same, he said, searching under grey skies for the person that fit the detailed description provided by the tipster.
“They find someone who matches the description … Sure enough, the guy does have something slung across his back,” Kwong said. “It’s an umbrella, which is par for the course with today’s weather.”
Kwong said most such calls never make it to the public eye. Police tweeted the report of a potential assault rifle, he said, because of the greater public risk that would have been present if the report turned out to be true.
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When police got word of the less threatening umbrella, they posted a public update accompanied by the hashtag #bettersafethansorry.
Another public alert went out hours later when police received reports of a suspicious package at a downtown subway station.
The station was shut down for about 40 minutes while officers investigated the tip. They left after discovering the source of the complaint – a cellphone that had gone up in smoke.