A Toronto resident who was seen in a widely circulated photo that appears to show a police officer choking them during the clearing of a homeless encampment is speaking out about their “traumatic” experience and is questioning the characterizations by the police service of how minimal force was used.
“I actually have very little recollection of it happening and it was only through piecing together the photos and the videos that I actually saw what happened,” Jayme Carter told Global News in an interview on Friday when asked what they felt about the encounter, noting they temporarily blacked out in the moment.
“It was just disgust, rage — I feel violated. Yeah, I’m just really angry it was a decision they made to use this much violence over something that just didn’t need to go there.”
Carter, a 23-year-old social work student, said they volunteer with the ALAB Resource Clinic, a community organization that provides front-line community supports (e.g. cellphones to access services) to those who are experiencing homelessness and have been living in encampments.
They said they and other advocates were told about the trespass notices from residents and were asked by those residents to come to Lamport Stadium Park on Wednesday to protect them and their belongings.
Carter said they were particularly concerned about their friend Jen, who has several disabilities and relies on a wheelchair to get around. They said she expressed worry that as a result of her conditions, her arms could break if forced behind her back. While walking around to assess the situation, Carter said they saw multiple officers around Jen.
“I just booked it in that direction and I had total tunnel vision, and it didn’t even occur to me that I would be breaching a loose line of cops that was in front of me. I didn’t say a word, I didn’t … nothing happened,” they recalled.
“They (police) just throttled me, they just threw me backward. Miraculously I didn’t fall on the ground and then I stepped forward because my glasses fell off my face and I was like, ‘I need my glasses to see,’ and they kept on pushing me after that.”
The interaction was captured by a photographer with The Canadian Press covering the hours-long process of clearing the Dufferin Street and King Street West-area park. The image, along with other photos and video captured by journalists who stayed to cover the City of Toronto-led operation that saw dozens cleared out, went viral online.
“It took some time for it to sink in, like how bad it actually was. The photos started to circulate and they just kept on getting more photos, it went more viral and it just took a while for it to occur to me how bad it was. There’s just something about very traumatic experiences that don’t really hit you right away and then you kind of think about it after,” Carter said, adding it has been physically and mentally challenging in the days since the clearing operation.
“There’s so much blowing up on my phone that it’s overwhelming.”
A news release issued by the Toronto Police Service Wednesday evening said officers were at the park to support City of Toronto staff “where needed.”
“Crowds of protesters gathered at the closed park to interfere with the City’s efforts and confront police. Repeated efforts were made to engage with people and explain to them that a Trespass to Property notice had been served and they were required to leave,” the statement said.
“These efforts were largely ignored and the crowds became confrontational and hostile.
“As a last resort, and in partnership with City staff, officers carried out enforcement, responding proportionately and using minimal force. Objects were thrown at police, an officer was spat at, while an unknown noxious substance was also sprayed at police. As a result, three officers suffered injuries.”
Carter questioned the reference to “minimal force” when there were images showing officers “brutally beating people.”
“I don’t know how they can get up on Twitter with the news release and say we use minimal force when I have people in my networks and some of my friends are saying this is as bad as the G20. It doesn’t make any sense,” they said while calling for the abolishment of the police service.
Global News contacted the Toronto Police Service on Friday to ask for reaction to this story and the use of force described, but representatives for the service were unwilling to comment.
Earlier in the day, five City of Toronto councillors urged Mayor John Tory to end what they called an “extreme show of force” during the clearing of homeless encampments. They said there’s no need for batons, pepper spray or guns in the operations, adding that the mayor’s approach to encampments does not resolve the challenges posed by them.
“We demand an end to the violence and extreme show of force,” said a letter signed by councillors Shelley Carroll, Mike Layton, Josh Matlow, Gord Perks and Kristyn Wong-Tam.
“You are only moving people experiencing homelessness from parks to laneways, under bridges or into another park.”
It also came after an encampment at Alexandra Park was cleared out the day before. In June, encampment residents and supporters were forced out of Trinity Bellwoods Park.
Tory said in a statement on Friday that some councillors “continue to ignore” the work City of Toronto staff have done to reach out to people in encampments and encourage them to take up safe indoor shelter with proper support.
“After thousands and thousands of visits offering housing before and after trespass notices are issued, there does come a time when an encampment cannot continue to occupy a public park, to threaten the safety and health of people experiencing homelessness, and impact the families and communities who rely on these parks,” he said.
“I support the right to protest but I do not support protesters trying to stop City staff from offering safe indoor housing to residents in encampments, forcing confrontations with police and City staff, and trying to stop the City from having discussions with encampment residents and from making sure our parks are safe and healthy places for everyone.”
The councillors who wrote to Tory added that any obstruction of media access to encampment clearing operations is “undemocratic and unconstitutional.” A Canadian Press photographer covering the Alexandra Park clearing was arrested on Tuesday by City corporate security personnel and removed from the area.
Early in the pandemic, hundreds of people experiencing homelessness fled Toronto’s shelters for fear of contracting COVID-19, setting up tents in parks throughout the city.
Recent data obtained by The Canadian Press also shows a significant rise in violent incidents in Toronto’s shelter system over the last five years. However, municipal staff maintain the shelter system is safe, and city council recently passed a motion to end encampments.
Erick Laming, an associate professor of criminology at Trent University who researches use of force by police, wasn’t at Wednesday’s protest but said he said saw several videos shared online.
“Seeing the videos (and) more have come out, it’s concerning of course. It seems excessive … objectively from a layperson,” he told Global News, saying heavy-handed enforcement tactics are “criminalizing poverty essentially.”
“For non-violent protesters in a lot of these videos, it’s not good. It’s not a good situation.”
However, when it comes to analyzing the use of force by officers, he said it’s critical to peel back and look at the context of that enforcement. He said he would like to see footage captured on Toronto police body cameras, but added it’s unlikely for the few cameras he saw to have the footage released publicly. Laming also noted officers and municipal personnel were at the scene for some time before violence flared up.
“Police have the authority to use force when they go to a situation. Every situation is different, so it has to be assessed differently. From the officer’s perspective, if they feel that they’re threatened in a situation, then they have the authority reasonably to use force,” he said.
“When you get a group of officers using force at the same time against people, at least the videos that I’ve seen from the footage that was released, I mean people were just standing there arm-tied non-violently and then you see the force happen, that’s when it gets scary.”
Laming said based on what he observed, it seems like better engagement efforts on the part of police and officials are needed with encampment residents and advocates. He also said there appeared to be an issue with how people at the park were communicated with.
“They need to also be better at communicating with the people. All we see is officers yelling at people, and that’s not going to do anything,” Laming said.
Meanwhile, when it comes to Carter’s next steps, they said they are still considering the legal and formal complaint processes available. When it comes to the City of Toronto’s handling, they said the municipal response to those in desperate need of safe, long-term housing has been “egregious.”
“The reason why this happened is that we showed up as a community to support each other and there’s absolutely no regard for that on the side of the City,” Carter said.
“We’re just there to protect the most marginalized people in the city who are living in a constant state of trauma.
“We’re fighting for community care, affordable housing, and actual viable options for places for people to live permanently.”
–With files from Morganne Campbell and The Canadian Press