Const. Mark O’Connell gives a quick blast of the siren to catch the attention of the young person crossing the street in front of his police cruiser.
They remove their headphones from underneath their hoodie and saunter over to the open driver’s side window.
“Call your dad, okay? He’s worried about you,” says O’Connell.
The young woman nods and plugs the headphones back in place underneath her hoodie as she saunters up Wyndham Street.
O’Connell puts the window up and steers in the other direction.
“She just got out of jail and her dad wants her to come home, but she’s not ready,” he explains.
It’s all in a day’s work for O’Connell, an 18-year veteran of the Guelph Police Service and its designated ‘Downtown Cop’ since last July.
Part social worker, part friend, all cop, O’Connell is responsible for helping make the downtown core safe for everyone and, hopefully, make life a little better and easier for some of the marginalized people that congregate there.
He builds relationships on both sides of the street he walks on a near daily basis.
“I want people to feel safe when they come downtown,” says O’Connell of a lot of the fears and criticism many have of the city’s downtown core.
“But I don’t like when people use the term ‘cleaning up downtown.’ It’s offensive,” he continues.
On a walkabout with O’Connell on a busy weekday, it doesn’t take long to understand that respect is a big part of what he does.
“It’s not up to anyone to judge. I wouldn’t judge a person with cancer or Lou Gehrig’s disease, so why would I judge someone with another type of disease or mental health issues?” he says.
Many of the homeless and sick in Downtown Guelph have been in situations where they weren’t respected. For some it’s the reason behind their issues, he says.
“It’s all about respect,” O’Connell says.
One minute O’Connell is chatting with a group of residents outside 90 Carden St. discussing vandalism in the building, the next minute he’s sticking his head in a local jewelry store asking the owner if they have any concerns.
He jokes with the tellers at the Bank of Nova Scotia and the ladies knitting in a Quebec Street boutique, then seconds later half a block away tells a young man he’d better “get your ass down to the parole office.”
A frank talk with a person on the street about an impending arrest if a “lost” phone isn’t returned soon. Cooing with a baby at HOPE House. Advising someone at the Drop-In about how to get things fixed in their apartment.
At the Drop-In Centre he has words of encouragement for a man smoking outside who is “doing well.”
Minutes later he asks a man sporting a nasty facial injury if he is interested in telling him who it was that kicked him in the face while he slept the night before.
“I’m told I’ve got the gift of the gab,” says O’Connell with a smile over coffee.
Turning 52 in May with two grown daughters, O’Connell grew up in Guelph, played and coached competitive lacrosse and came to policing later than most others.
He chose Guelph over Waterloo Regional Police, where his brother Larry worked.
“I thought that if I was going to make a difference in a community I was going to make a difference in my community that was good to me and my family,” says the youngest of six siblings.
Sometimes that includes going the extra mile.
Arrangements are made to drop off a donated bed at a man’s new apartment the next day, O’Connell’s off day. Another man jokes about the used skates O’Connell bought for him.
On Christmas Day, another off day, O’Connell dressed up as Santa Claus at the Drop-In Centre.
All in a day’s work, he says.
“There’s a lot of great organizations downtown helping people out. A lot of people doing good work,” O’Connell says.
“But the store owners have a right to run their businesses and people have a right to feel safe downtown. Like I said, it’s all about respect. Both ways.”