A poverty law group is urging the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) to cease what it calls the over-policing of the city’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) during the simultaneous COVID-19 and opioid crises.
Pivot Legal Society said in an April 2 letter to the VPD and Mayor Kennedy Stewart that it has received multiple complaints from area residents that the VPD is over-policing the neighbourhood.
The VPD, however, said the area is a very complex environment, creating unique public safety challenges.
“We see high levels of poverty, substance use and mental health issues in the area. There are also high levels of property crime and street disorder. These issues are further compounded during the COVID-19 crisis,” VPD spokesperson Tania Visintin said.
She said police cannot cease public safety measures in the neighbourhood.
“There continue to be calls from citizens and businesses for police service for violent crime and property crime,” Visintin said . “We expect officers to deal with property crime, street disorder and violence and protect the public.”
Pivot staff lawyer Caitlin Shane and criminalization and policing campaigner Meenakshi Mannoe wrote that police activities are jeopardizing residents’ health, livelihood and security.
“As there are now two simultaneous public health emergencies in B.C., we are asking the VPD to cease all practices that undermine public health and safety in all low-income communities in the city of Vancouver,” the letter said.
“At a time when DTES residents are particularly vulnerable in terms of their health, safety and economic condition, VPD are doubling down on the criminal law at direct cost to the DTES and the community at large,” the letter said.
Pivot called on the VPD to:
• cease over-policing people who use drugs;
• minimize policing of informal economies;
• cease over-policing of unsheltered people; and
• minimize contact with the criminal justice system.
“Vancouver-based research shows that VPD practices routinely jeopardize access to health and harm reduction services. Continued police disruption of these activities amid overlapping public health emergencies is not only constitutionally suspect, but directly at odds with the messaging of nearly every level of government to ensure harm reduction access during COVID-19,” Shane said.
Visintin said specialized department outreach officers remain active in the area and continue to work with patrol members and partner organizations to help connect people without homes or who are living with mental health or substance use issues, with appropriate resources.
“Our sex industry liaison officer remains very activity in the community,” Visintin said. “This member acts as an advocate for the industry and provides support to many women who live and work in the DTES.”
“On drug use, our approach is guided by the view that addiction is a health issue, not a criminal justice issue,” she said. “For example, we actively support discussion, research, and initiatives to provide safe supply and do not arrest for simple drug possession.”
Further, Visintin said, the VPD has a ‘no response’ policy for overdoses enacted several years ago to ensure anyone overdosing, or assisting someone who has overdosed, is not reluctant to contact 9-1-1 for fear of police involvement.
She said the VPD only attends overdoses when requested by Vancouver Fire Rescue Services or paramedic and fully supports and encourages people to use overdose prevention sites.
The city referred questions to the VPD.