'Everybody knows they won't pay, they can't pay.' So why issue the tickets?

Hamilton police say issuing the tickets is part of keeping downtown safe. But the team is endlessly dealing with the same people for the same offences, time after time, according to testimony heard so far in court this week.

ACTION trial: Police ticketing same people over and over criminalizes homelessness: Prof

Attorney Gary Clewley, centre, leaves court Tuesday afternoon with Const. Bhupesh Gulati, left and Const. Dan Williams. Gulati and Williams are among four officers on trial for allegedly falsifying tickets in 2014. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Thomas Groves: $48,000.

Dwight Perry: $20,000.

Michael Hart: $15,000 (at least).

That's how much each of the three men say they face in unpaid fines for tickets they've been handed by police officers patrolling Hamilton's downtown core.

'It suggests so many things that are wrong.' - Stephen Gaetz, York University

Their offences: drinking in public, trespassing, panhandling and other nuisance behaviour. 

They're part of a small, often homeless, population of about two dozen who are the daily focus of the city's high profile ACTION team, all of whom are regularly ticketed.

And their accounts —that surfaced in Hamilton courtroom this week — of life under the ACTION teams raise questions about the effectiveness of the police team working downtown, the value of the statistics touted to justify their work and the appropriateness of part of their strategy.

For Hamilton police, issuing the tickets is part of keeping downtown safe.

"The ACTION team increased the safety of the community by issuing a total of 3,041 Provincial Offence Notices (tickets) in 2015," police said in a year-end report delivered in May.

The team has issued more than 26,000 tickets since it was launched in 2010, mostly for things like pedestrian and traffic infractions, panhandling, trespassing and open liquor.

But a leading homelessness researcher said the ticketing tactic isn't a solution. 

That three sometimes-homeless downtown denizens are carrying around such insurmountable fines is a symbol of the "criminalization of homelessness" happening across Canada, said Stephen Gaetz, a professor at York University. And it provides a barrier to them ever becoming stably housed and employed.

"It suggests so many things that are wrong," he said. "What we're doing wrong about homelessness, how we're using law enforcement inappropriately to effectively deal with social services."

'We deal with probably the same 25 people'

The team has been touted as a response to calls for police help in making downtown feel more comfortable for business owners, workers and customers.

But the team is endlessly dealing with the same people for the same offences, time after time, according to testimony heard so far this week in the trial of four Hamilton police officers accused of falsifying tickets in 2014.

"Unfortunately, we deal with probably the same 25 people, day in, day out, 365," Sgt. Michael Dunham said.

One of the ticketed men, Dwight Perry, said he had trouble with the math.

Dwight Perry, 59, testified Tuesday at the trial of four Hamilton police officers charged with obstructing justice. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

"I think there's something wrong with asking someone for a quarter and you give me a ticket for $65," Perry, 59, said. "It just don't balance out."

Hamilton Police Chief Eric Girt declined to be interviewed Wednesday on the value of ticketing the same people over and over again. Former Chief Glenn De Caire, who launched the strategy, did not respond to a request for an interview.

A ticket counted as a stat but allegedly not delivered

The ACTION team was launched in 2010 to be a high-visibility, nimble presence downtown. A mounted horse unit was incorporated in 2011. The officers are known by yellow jackets and bicycles and are thought to deter crime and misbehaviour by simply being there.

Constables Bhupesh Gulati, Shawn Smith, Stephen Travale and Daniel Williams are each charged with obstructing justice between April 1 and Oct. 1, 2014.

Each was also charged with fabricating between two and six tickets, and each pleaded not guilty to all charges. Court is scheduled to resume on Thursday.

 'The tickets, while useless, they represent a disincentive. A reason for the guy to stop.'- Paddy Bowen, former director,  Mission Services

At issue in the trial that began Monday includes times when the accused officers allegedly didn't hand people their copies of tickets issued – thus counting the ticket as a "stat" toward their goal for number of tickets to issue without actually serving the person.

That goal looked like an average of 100 to 120 tickets per officer per year, testified Staff Sgt. Philip Fleming, who was overseeing the mounted and ACTION units in 2014. None of the officers in the trial were having trouble meeting their target.

'Everybody knows they won't pay, they can't pay'

Court heard from the three men on the receiving end of that attention so far this week, who each have been ticketed hundreds of times.

Thomas Groves testified Monday in a trial against four Hamilton police officers. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

"Everybody knows they won't pay, they can't pay," said Paddy Bowen, the former director of Mission Services, an organization that operates shelters and runs food and addictions programs.

Bowen said it adds up to the oft-quoted definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

'It actually does have an impact'

Bowen said what she's heard so far suggests the proceedings are actually putting the ticketing program on trial, rather than whether the officers violated their responsibility as police officers.

Issuing tickets is far from ACTION's entire mandate. And crime is down downtown and in the other neighbourhoods where it deploys. The strategy includes an innovative program praised for connecting vulnerable people with support.

And the tickets aren't an entirely irrelevant tool, Bowen said.

"What actually does work, to some degree, is the interaction between the police and the person whose behavior is inappropriate," she said. "The tickets, while useless, they represent a disincentive. A reason for the guy to stop. Even they buy in a little bit. It actually does have an impact."

"There needs to be a discussion about what might the alternative disincentives be," Bowen said.

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett