Ottawa

'I was scared': 17-year-old fined for shooting hoops

William Vogelsang was surprised to see two bylaw officers heading toward him on the outdoor basketball court at the Eva James Memorial Community Centre last Wednesday afternoon.

City says few fines issued, despite more than 2,500 complaints

William Vogelsang, 17, says he was nervous and embarrassed after getting a ticket for playing basketball by himself at an outdoor court at Eva James Memorial Centre. 2:01

William Vogelsang was surprised to see two bylaw officers heading toward him on the outdoor basketball court at the Eva James Memorial Community Centre last Wednesday afternoon.

The 17-year-old was alone and thought — mistakenly — that there was only a ban on shooting hoops in groups, under new rules implemented to help halt the spread of COVID-19. After all, he'd been there the day before, alone, with no issue.

The officers immediately told him he wasn't allowed to be there.

"And I was like, 'Oh, I'm sorry about that, I'll be leaving,'" said Vogelsang.

But, he said, the officers insisted they'd have to issue him a ticket.

"I've never gotten in trouble like that before," he said. "It was a big incident. Everyone's walking past with their with dogs. I was getting nervous and embarrassed."

According to the teen, the bylaw officers demanded his identification. Vogelsang didn't have any on him, but said his mother could text him a picture of his photo ID — or even bring it herself. Instead, the officers chose to confirm his identity by calling Ottawa police, who arrived about 20 minutes later.

"I was scared," Vogelsang said.

William Vogelsang, 17, was fined more than $700 for using the otherwise empty basketball court at Eva James Memorial Community Centre. His parents have complained to the city that bylaw officers bullied him, and argue that a warning should have sufficed. (Provided by Robert Vogelsang.)

'Disgusting' response, says dad

The teen was also shocked by the amount of the fine, which was more than $700, and worried about how he'd pay it.

"I get [home], I tell my mom and I start crying because I'm nervous and all this stress is on me," he said.

"It's hard times right now. I didn't want my parents to pay it because I feel like it's my responsibility."

Vogelsang's father, Robert, told CBC he found the bylaw officers' alleged behaviour "disgusting," equating it to "bullying."

He says his son has Type 1 diabetes and tries to get exercise every day.

"A warning would have been sufficient to scare William off," said Robert, who has lodged a complaint with the city.

Compliance high, but tensions persist

Vogelsang's story isn't the first instance of Ottawa bylaw officers being criticized for enforcing the new rules too harshly.

The municipal force has come under the spotlight for ticketing a 20-year-old refugee who let his younger siblings onto a play structure, and two women for taking a rest on a park bench.

The charges are very low in comparison to the amount of complaints that we've actually received.- Roger Chapman, Director of bylaw and regulatory services

But this latest incident does highlight some persistent tension about following— and enforcing — the state-of-emergency rules, which prohibit people from gathering in groups greater than five, operating a non-essential business, or using public facilities like city parks.

Roger Chapman, the city's director of bylaw and regulatory services, said the decision to offer a fine or a warning is up to the individual bylaw officer.

Chapman said he stands by the work of the city's 125 officers, noting statistics show they haven't been quick to bring down the hammer on ill-informed residents.

From the time parks and other facilities were closed by the province three weeks ago, to last Friday, the city's bylaw team has responded to 2,500 calls.The 40 officers on duty at any given time also proactively inspect parks 280 times a day.

In all that time, bylaw has only issued 75 tickets.

"You can see that the charges are very low in comparison to the amount of complaints that we've actually received," Chapman said.

Here is a breakdown of the park closures in Ottawa. (City of Ottawa)

The number of complaints and fines is similar in scale to what Toronto has experienced since the start of the month.

"We know that people's lives have been turned upside down," said Chapman. "They're members of these communities too, and they have children. They understand the impacts of people not being able to use these green spaces."

In fact, despite some egregious-sounding examples cited by officials recently — a company that was going door-to-door, a local barber staying open even after being warned — bylaw officers are finding that Ottawans are doing a good job at complying with the rules, Chapman said.

Of the 75 tickets that the city has issued, three-quarters have been for using park facilities.

Roger Chapman, Ottawa’s general manager of community and protective services, said the decision to issue a ticket often comes down to the history of activity in the park and whether residents continue to frequent closed basketball courts, picnic areas and benches. 1:09

'Previous incidents' at park

Chapman wouldn't comment on the specifics of Vogelsang's ticket, but said bylaw officers have had "previous incidents" in the Eva James park area.

"It is an area frequented for people playing basketball, so it is one that we're monitoring on a regular basis," he said. "Although this individual may not have been warned in the past, we have had some contact with people in that park previously."

"At some point, education has to [switch to enforcement]. But that's always a last resort," he added.

Tickets and fines issued for breaking Ontario's state-of-emergency legislation are actually provincial offences that can be appealed, added Chapman, despite the fact that provincial courts are currently closed.

To mail in an appeal, people should fill out the back of the ticket and send it to the provincial court offices at 100 Constellation Dr., or declare your intention online to fight the charge.

Appealing a ticket means fines won't be due right now, and all normal timelines for appeal purposes have been extended.

"Anybody who's been given a ticket to this point, there's still the ability to to appeal those charges," said Chapman. "And eventually, when the courts open up, then the trials will be set at a later date."

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