Smiths Falls police set up safe zone for internet transactions

Police in Smiths Falls have set up a "safe internet exchange zone" in their own monitored parking lot to prevent theft when people meet strangers to buy and sell goods they've found online.

Two parking spaces have been set aside for these exchanges.

They're monitored by surveillance cameras and are steps from the front door of the Smiths Falls police station, which is open 24/7.

"Anybody that wants to exchange or buy online stuff ... what it allows is just a safe interaction zone for members of our community to do so," Const. Aaron Tompkins told guest host Stu Mills Tuesday on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

Tompkins got an email from a community member asking if Smiths Falls police would try it, not long after police in Brockville and Cornwall created safe spaces for users of online classified sites such as Kijiji to safely exchange cash and goods.

He did some research and found that police in other jurisdictions were having success with similar initiatives, encouraging in-person transactions in well-lit, monitored parking lots of police stations.

Smiths Falls police posted a sign above the allocated parking spaces Monday.

"Instead of having to go to a local restaurant or somewhere else that may not have video surveillance — so let's say something does happen, we can just review the tapes, say OK, this is what we have, and move forward with that," said Tompkins.

"This way it just really removes the risk of that element."

Safety in spotlight since Tim Bosma murder

The safety of buyers and sellers in responding to online ads has been in the spotlight since the high-profile murder of Tim Bosma in 2013, who was trying to sell his truck when he met the men convicted of killing him.

Ottawa police don't have such a dedicated safe space, but they do encourage people to meet up in police stations with public areas to finish their deals.

Tompkins notes there haven't been many cases of online deals gone wrong in Smiths Falls. Still, he believes it's a good measure to prevent violent theft, especially when people are often meeting to exchange large sums of cash and expensive items like electronics.

Instead of buyers and sellers arranging to meet up at homes, "if it's obviously small enough that you can transport it in a car or truck, by all means they can come down here," said Tompkins.

The community response to the initiative has been positive so far, he said.