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MTO says 'hands off tow trucks,' claim enforcement officers

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Tow trucks are a no-go zone for Ontario’s commercial vehicle enforcement officers, the Toronto Sun has learned.


The directive, issued in February to MTO transportation enforcement officers (TEOs) in Toronto and Hamilton and later expanded province-wide, forbids officers from pulling over or performing audits on operators ‘until further notice’ — due to ‘instability and violence’ in the towing industry.


For several years, a turf war between rival factions of the GTA towing industry have fought a bloody battle for control of the region and its lucrative trade in fraudulent crashes, repairs and insurance claims.


Last month, York Regional Police announced numerous arrests in Project Platinum, a multi-agency operation meant to take down key players in the deadly conflict.


When the Sun contacted Transport Minister Caroline Mulroney’s office about the directive ordering Ontario TEOs to stand down on tow truck enforcement, spokesperson Christina Salituro denied its existence.


“At no point has MTO instructed enforcement officers to halt all enforcement of tow trucks,” she wrote in an email to the Sun.


Enforcement officers across the province verified the directive, and a copy — signed by directors Chris Levin and Ian Freeman — was viewed by the Sun.


Speaking to the Sun under condition of anonymity, TEOs say they’re hamstrung by dangerously inconsistent policy made by civil service managers unaccustomed with law enforcement.


“We have policy that binds our hands so much,” said one officer. “The public has no idea.”


The only interactions permitted under the directive must be prearranged and conducted in the presence of a police officer.


“Our directive is zero tow truck enforcement. Leave it alone, leave it up to the police,” said another officer.


Tow trucks are commercial vehicles. It’s totally our territory, and they’re saying ‘Let’s put our heads in the sand and hope the police will look after it, and that absolves us of any potential unfavourable interactions.,” the officer added.


While Ontario’s TEOs are sworn peace officers, they aren’t armed. They are equipped only with body armour and a baton.


“Basically anything you’d find on a security guard,” chuckled one officer.


Officers say they’ve encountered tow truck drivers wearing visible weapons, which in some cases can be an arrestable offence, but weren’t permitted to take them into custody.


“If no police officer is available to conduct the arrest, the driver simply walks away with no (punishment),” an officer said.


Another recalls observing a loaded tow truck travelling on a 400-series highway with a critical safety defect, but rather than pulling it over, they were forced to allow it to continue. Current policy didn’t permit a traffic stop to remedy the issue.


“Putting officers in this situation creates an enormous liability exposure for the enforcement program, the Ministry and ultimately the Province,” the officer said.


The over-protective and out-of-touch policy is a disaster waiting to happen, the officers agree.


During a recent traffic stop of a loaded tractor-trailer, one officer recalled seeing an open alcohol container inside the cab.


While this situation would’ve instantly led to charges if encountered by the police, existing policies forced the MTO officer to disregard it.


“I’ve had loaded semi trucks, with open alcohol on the seat, and drugs, that I’ve had to let go, because I’m not allowed to enforce it and there’s no police officers around to assist me,” the officer said.


While TEOs have the legal power to arrest drunk drivers, another officer says they’ve been ordered not to, despite regularly encountering drunk drivers while on patrol.


“Ministry policy is to just follow and let the OPP know what’s going on,” an officer said. “Why not use our lights to stop them and wait for the OPP?”


This policy has officers afraid to report certain encounters to management.


“We’ve all have had aggressive encounters with drivers that didn’t need to happen,” another officer said.


“There’s a lot of officers that have had really bad stuff happen that they’ve never reported for fear of reprisals from management.”


Coming across unsafe situations is all part of the job, they agree.


“We’re sworn to protect the public, we just can’t say ‘Well, I’ll just have another sip of coffee and let that go,’” said an officer.


“That’s not why we do the job.”

Tow trucks aren’t the only risk

While the MTO cites personal risk as justification for suspending enforcement of tow trucks, officers say criminal elements involved in commercial trucking pose far greater dangers.


Cargo theft has reached epidemic levels in Canada, costing the Canadian economy $5 billion annually, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada.


“The Greater Toronto Area has the highest rate of cargo theft in all of North America,” one officer told the Sun. “And that’s all perpetrated by organized crime.”


Earlier this year, the driver of a stolen tractor-trailer full of meat died after colliding with two vehicles at a Mississauga intersection before sliding into a gas station.


As well, much of Canada’s illicit drug and gun trade is transported by commercial vehicles, one officer said.


Five-ton straight trucks are commonly found transporting illicit drugs like cannabis, escorted by armed men driving blocker cars Smokey and the Bandit style.


“You have armed drivers escorting cannabis right through the downtown core now,” the officer said. “We’ll stop a driver — he’ll have a gun and we won’t.”


Ontario doesn’t arm their TEOs, a concern for those on the frontlines.


“Commercial vehicle enforcement around the country are stepping up and recognizing the risk,” said one officer.

“You never need it until you need it,” said another.


The coronavirus pandemic prompted management to set aside inspection quotas, so officers say they spend their days ‘flying the flag’ — maintaining visibility while essentially doing nothing.


“You’re going to start seeing a lot of accidents,” one officer said. “We already are.”

Take commercial vehicle enforcement away from MTO, say officers

“We always call ourselves the ‘bastard child of MTO.’”


As Ontario’s commercial vehicle enforcement officers vent their frustration over what they allege are dangerous levels of bureaucracy preventing them from doing their jobs, some are asking if the time has come to move the service out of the Transport Ministry and under the purview of the Solicitor General.


“The world is changing,” one officer told the Sun. “We’re not just weighing trucks and measuring brakes anymore.”


With only 158 officers across Ontario — nearly half of their full complement — their ability to not only handle the increase in commercial vehicle traffic is cut, so is their ability to back each other up on risky stops.


“Commercial traffic has increased over 10% in the last six or seven years, and yet our officer numbers are less than half of what they were in 2014,” said one officer.


So, what needs to change?


“Enforcement needs to be taken away from the MTO,” said another officer. “The MTO should focus on infrastructure, permits, licensing — 98% of what the MTO is. Were just some teeny-tiny chunk over in the corner.


“I don’t believe they’re an enforcement-minded organization.”


One officer sees the service continuing as an arm of the OPP, similar to what Alberta did earlier this year by transferring — and arming — their enforcement officers under the Alberta Sheriffs and the province’s Solicitor General.


“Then we could start running the program like a law enforcement agency,” said the officer. “Our management has no clue how to do that, a lot of them have never been officers.”


“When you don’t understand what it’s like to be a cop, that effects your decisions,” the officer said.


Salituro, spokesperson for Ontario’s transport minister, said a review of the commercial vehicle program is underway — encompassing industry research, recommendations from the 2019 Auditor General’s report on commercial enforcement, and risk assessments.


“The goal of the review is to determine the most effective commercial vehicle safety and enforcement operations that builds on Ontario’s leading truck and road safety record and supports the industry in achieving regulatory compliance,” she said.



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