Sgt. Toby Hinton, a beat cop on the Downtown Eastside and 23-year veteran of the Vancouver Police Department, has seen firsthand the devastating effects of drugs and alcohol. He works in an overwhelmingly negative environment. But with unprecedented access to tragic life stories, Hinton was determined to do something positive to educate at-risk groups of the dangers of substance abuse and other criminal behaviour. He, along with six other officers founded Odd Squad Productions, a volunteer band of police officers who produce movies to keep kids clean and off the street.
The non-profit group, which recently marked its 15th anniversary, has produced more than 15 documentaries telling real stories of the pitfalls of drug abuse, gangs and other high-risk behaviour.
Through a Blue Lens-perhaps their most notable documentary that was produced in partnership with the National Film Board-has been viewed by millions in 22 countries. Scathed & Stolen Lives and Tears for April have both received accolades at the New York Film Festival. The squad also makes presentations to schools, community centres and boardrooms. The group has also enlisted high school students to spread the word. Its On Track program takes young achievers on a one-day workshop that includes a stroll through the Downtown Eastside. Students return to their schools as ambassadors sharing lessons learned with their peers.
Why did you choose a career in policing?
I disliked authority and needed to come to terms with that. I thought the best way was to become authority and then try to find out why I hated it so much. Not sure if that worked or not, because I still don't like authority.
How did the Odd Squad come about?
I was doing presentations with boring visuals. I asked Ret. Const. Al Arsenault if I could borrow some slides. Immediately, the presentation was a lot more interesting. Right around this time, a bunch of beat cops sat down and decided to start doing some prevention work. We wanted to get a strong message out to youth about the consequences of bad decisions, particularly around drug use/abuse. The marriage of presentation and stills/video, along with support from the department, led us to making videos. A well-done educational film can go a lot further and reach a much wider audience.
What do you hope to achieve?
We hope to prevent people from ending up in the type of grim situation we often see on the street. We want to encourage youth to reach their potential in life and not fall victim to the consequences of bad decisions around risky behaviour. Educated and informed youth are in a better position to make healthy decisions with their bodies, and that this knowledge will carry them well through life.
What do you say to kids who may want to experiment with drugs?
I would want kids to be well educated on what they are putting in their bodies, and this starts with diet, and extends to everything else. Your body is the biggest investment you have in life: look after it! The No. 1 killer out there is tobacco. Alcohol is a huge problem in society. There are some serious consequences to the drugs that are being used by youth, starting with alcohol and tobacco.
There is virtually no quality control in any of the illicit street drugs (witness the large number of youth lost in the past year to PMMA-contaminated ecstasy). I would want to have the youth delay the experimentation as late as possible in life, so that their social bonds are developed, they have started identifying their passions and interests, their brains are maturing, and they have established a healthy lifestyle. Chances are if they are 13 or 14 they could have much more significant issues with drug use and experimentation than someone who is on their way in life at age 19.
Your advice to parents?
Get engaged. Know your kids and their friends. Educate yourself about drugs and current trends with youth. Be there for your kids no matter what. Make sure that you are a good role model and leader at every waking moment. This is what you signed up for.
How did you get your subjects to open up?
Most of the drug addicts we work with don't want anyone else to end up in their situation. For the most part, they are united in wanting to get a strong deterrent message out to youth. In a way, I think it helps them reclaim some dignity by contributing to valuable prevention work.
How do you solve the problems of the Downtown Eastside?
That question deserves a little more space for a response. There are a number of problems including crime, housing, drug addiction/dealing, poverty, mental health and prostitution. All of these are interrelated. Overall, I think there needs to be a bit more accountability into the money spent here, and we need to change our mindset from "non-judgmental" and "low-threshold" to focusing on getting people healthier (sacrilegious to say it nowadays but helping people become clean and sober) and into a structured and safe living environment. Just maintaining a pulse is not necessarily the best goal to strive for.
Are we making progress?
In some areas there has been great progress. In other areas there has been great slippage. For example, years ago 80 individuals a year (primarily First Nations) were being killed from consuming rice wine (non-potable due to sodium content). Ret. Insp. Ken Frail took this project on and forced change to the regulation banning corner stores in the Downtown Eastside from selling rice wine. We no longer have these deaths, although there is a substitute effect, nothing to the extent that we were dealing with 15 years ago.
On the other hand, a number of rooming houses are actually doing a good job. The conditions in a few have become worse. We now regularly attend to these hotels to deal with criminal issues, police complaints, and other problems. We were not doing this in the past.