The giveaway is part of a broader effort by two officers to boost safety and bridge rifts between cops and community in Lawrence Heights.
Mugdaba Ullah, 4, can’t believe his luck. First training wheels on his “supercycle,” now a flashy, fire-toned helmet.
“Two peez gave me a bicycle hat,” he says, busting out his nickname for “police.”
“Mine has Snow White and Cinderella,” notes his sister Nagina, 5.
The two “peez” pals, Constables Mir Lodhi and Wayne Clarke, have been giving bike helmets to kids around the Lawrence Heights area where they walk the beat as neighbourhood officers. Launching the effort last month after seeing scores of tike bikers without headgear, the duo has doled out more than a dozen helmets to boost safety and bridge old rifts on streets where distrust of law enforcement lingers.
Two factors lie behind the dearth of noggin shells, Lodhi says: cash and awareness.
“It’s mostly financial. They can’t afford to go out and spend 30 or 40 bucks,” he says of families in a neighbourhood identified by the city as a “priority area” until 2013.
Education plays a role, too. Whenever Lodhi and Clarke ask young cyclists where their helmet is, “They’re either shocked or they didn’t know they had to have one.”
A city bylaw requires all cyclists under 18 to wear a helmet.
“We just explain — to the kid and to the mom or the dad — how unsafe it is to ride without protection, and that it’s the law,” says Clarke.
The pilot project, launched informally by Clarke and Lodhi last month, complements other efforts such as taking kids for a ride-along to buy a slushy, or co-ordinating a makeover between teens and a Yonge St. aesthetician.
Lodhi arrived in Lawrence Heights in the fall of 2013 to help spearhead the Toronto Police Service’s new neighbourhood officer program to help heal “50 years of mutual distrust between police and the community.”
Less than three years later, he and Clarke are ambling along the streets, bouncing basketballs back and forth with children and razzing tweens.
“Looking good on those blades, Romario,” Lodhi says. “Yeah, but D’Andre’s getting cocky with his skills on the court,” Clarke chirps.
Lodhi says the effort has led to healthier relationships and heightened safety, as well as tips that have helped resolve crimes.
“We realize that we may not be able to work with certain people that already have their minds made up, but we want to work with the next generation, and this is how we get them.”
While helmets are critical, infrastructure such as segregated bike lanes and lower speed limits can prevent injuries and save more lives, says Pat Brown, a road safety advocate and head of Bike Law Canada.
“Even at slow speed, slight contact with someone who’s cycling can mean death,” Brown said. “Cycling shouldn’t be considered a contact sport.”
Last year, the city imposed lower speed limits on hundreds of kilometres of residential streets downtown and in East York in a bid to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists. Meanwhile, bike lanes await installation in a Bloor St. pilot project going into gear by the end of the summer.
Toronto police have faced criticism recently for apparent victim-blaming in fatal cycling accidents.
On July 5, spokesman Const. Clinton Stibbe told reporters a biker pedalling at a high speed did not “approach the area with enough care,” resulting in the 71-year-old’s death near the intersection of Christie St. and Dupont St. Stibbe apologized over Twitter for his remark the next day, noting the cyclist had the right of way.
“Historically, we’ve seen a tendency to look at the cyclist or pedestrian first, and second at the driver. We think that comes across as a form of victim-blaming and sends the wrong message to the public,” said Brown.
He noted police are “active participants with safety and cycling, especially with the younger generation.”