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Erin yet to pass fortification bylaw; OPP Inspector Scott Smith reviews the issue

by Mike Robinson

ERIN - There is a price to waiting.

Wellington County’s fortification bylaw has been on the books for several years without resolution because it has not been approved by all municipal governments.

County OPP Inspector Scott Smith did his best at an Erin council meeting to convince councillors of the need to pass the bylaw. Smith said he was there to help council understand the proposal better.

Mayor Lou Maieron said although there is normally a time limit for delegations, he wanted all questions to be answered and was ready to provide flexibility. He also asked if Smith could provide an email address to councillors in case there were additional questions.

“I do not suspect council wishes to make a decision tonight ... but probably at the next meeting,” the mayor said.

Smith said he generally attends meetings representing the OPP, “but today, I am here more representing the Wellington County Police Services Board.” He explained why the bylaw was proposed, and how it has been working elsewhere.

“The county has not yet passed this bylaw,” he said. “I was somewhat shocked by that.”

He explained officers had “walked into one community where there was an issue we had identified and were fully prepared to use the bylaw to our advantage. In this particular situation, there was a drug house with quite a few known bandits hanging out in it. They had set it up with three surveillance cameras.”

He explained those cameras were all outdoors “solely for the purpose of identifying when we might come with warrant in hand to kick their door in.”

The cameras go against what the bylaw is all about, he said.

“But when I started doing some digging, I found out quickly that particular municipality had not passed the bylaw, and after further enquiries, found out the town of Erin had not passed it either - therefore the County of Wellington had not passed it. So ... we really had no ability to enforce this particular bylaw.”

Smith said the fortification bylaw “is really intended to protect emergency services going into structures for whatever legal reason.”

He said in some Wellington municipalities, “There have been situations where doors have been changed to either being extremely thick, steel doors in apartment buildings above stores. If there was a fire, the firefighters would not be able to get in easily.”

He said that creates a risk for anyone inside the apartment and increases the potential for damage in adjoining apartments or businesses and “that is very concerning to us.”

Smith said, “The other concern is the possibility of gang-related housing being established in Wellington County. They are fortifying their premises, sometimes with booby traps, sometimes with weird entrances.”

He described those efforts as being aimed at keeping the police out and prohibiting them from carrying out their duties.

Smith cited an incident in 2010 where Waterloo Regional Police officers were involved in executing a warrant in Puslinch Township in Wellington County - targeting a gang house of a group operating in the Kitchener-Waterloo area.

“Out of that there was quite a seizure of drugs and weapons.”

“We’re trying to keep Wellington County as a very safe place. We don’t want organizations coming into Wellington County to establish a fortified residence. It makes it very difficult for us or the fire department to undertake lawful performance of our duties.”

Smith said when the bylaw was first proposed there was a lot of misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

“This has absolutely nothing to do with a private business or residences putting in proper security in their residence or business ... In fact we encourage it.”

Smith said putting a camera outside a business or residence is not a breach of the bylaw. “It’s a deterrent for theft.”

He said that likewise, businesses and residents have purchased protective screens to put on windows to make them shatterproof.

“The bylaw does not prohibit that - it is not excessive.”

He said the “excessive “ reference in the bylaw refers to a multitude of cameras being installed or door frames with 12-inch deadbolts, or steel frames bolted into steel posts “so that short of three sticks of dynamite, we’re not going to get the door off its hinges.”

Smith said there are organizations whose members build entrances so that it is impossible to gain entrance except for going in one person at a time, in single file.

He said the bylaw refers to security features over and above what a person or business would normally have.

“This bylaw is one [police] enforce.”

He added it is something where local chief building officials have a role - “but to be honest, five of Wellington’s municipalities passed this fast - and we had not received a call from any of those CBOs.”

Smith added the only real involvement of building officials would be if they happened to see something they thought was excessive.

“They’d let us know about it. We’d write a warrant, execute that warrant and charge the person.”

The chief building official would issue a stop work order with instructions to return the building to its previous condition - removing the excessive fortifications.

“We have not had any issues with the municipalities where the bylaw has passed.”

Smith said similar bylaws are in place in many communities across Ontario. “They’ve all utilized the bylaw without any significant issues.”

Councillor Barb Tocher said for the sake of argument under the definition of excessive fortification, a number of items were listed. She cited the application of laminated glass or break resistant or bullet proof materials to windows or doors.

“To me that does not spell out excessive.”

She said businesses put bars on their properties to keep the criminals out. “We’re supposed to keep the bad guys out, but not keep the good guys out.”

She said she has experienced having a bullet go through a front pane of glass from a citizen.

“So if I want to put a pane of bulletproof glass in the front of my store, I still see it as being considered excessive [under the bylaw].”

Smith said the fortification bylaw addresses the use of commonly available marketed security devices “which provide reasonable security and protection from criminal activity.”

Councillor John Brennan said when the issue first arose, it was his understanding it was chief building officials in the county who had taken issue with it. He said the concern then was the CBOs would be  called to undertake duties they might not feel safe doing.

“That was where the crux has been.”

Brennan did not have a comparison of the current bylaw and the original proposal.

Smith said changes were very minor. He agreed some CBOs had some concern. One in particular, did not believe Smith’s assurance enforcement was to be done by the OPP.

“I am not prepared, and never would be prepared, to jeopardize the safety of a CBO for a piece of property. It makes absolutely no sense to me,” he said. “The previous detachment commander, though well intentioned, did a presentation that scared the living bejeebus out of pretty nearly everyone in attendance. As well intentioned as it was, it caused an irrational fear.”

Smith said he is not in position to put anyone in danger.

Brennan anticipated council would get a report at the next meeting from Erin’s CBO.

Smith said “Most of this is happening in existing - not new - residences.”

Tocher said that if people are doing that, they are getting a building permit.

Smith said when the police become aware of an issue,  they also have the ability to use the warrant though the bylaw, which would allow those things changed, to be restored to the way they were before.

He said police do not have the authority to order restorations, but CBOs do.

Councillor Deb Callaghan strongly supported the fortification bylaw - but because of her experience as a bylaw enforcement officer - suggested changes to it.

One was the manner in which the notice is given.

Smith said the bylaw has been approved “word for word” by five municipalities already - and reviewed with a fine tooth comb.

He considers those items as fine tuning. To revamp the bylaw at this stage, would require going through the whole process again he said.

“What I’m trying to say is that while you have valid points, it does not invalidate the bylaw because one particular phrase is wrong.”

Maieron said there is always an opportunity to amend the bylaw later.

Smith agreed.

“Once everyone is on board, it is much easier to come in after the fact and amend the bylaw.”

Chief Building Official Andrew Hartholt had already talked at length with Smith.

“I’m in full support of this,” Hartholt said, adding that quite a few municipalities have already agreed, and “This is enforceable as it is written.”

He said his report for council at its next meeting will also refer to the protocols that would have to go along with the bylaw.

“Those protocols just make it clear how the bylaw is going to be enforced,” Hartholt said.

January 20, 2012


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