Community Policing and the health and overdose prevention dimensions of Vancouver’s war on drugs: By the Editors with a statement by Alliance Against Displacement


Dave from VANDU holds protest sign before going to Council, January 25, 2017.

On Wednesday January 25, 2017, fifteen Downtown Eastside (DTES) residents showed up to speak out against a City motion to devote a quarter-million dollars to establish a new Community Policing Office in the DTES. Property and business owners have long advocated for a Community Policing Centre in the increasingly affluent Strathcona sub-district of the still-predominantly low-income DTES without success. This particular motion, however, was buried in a broader city report on municipal actions to address the opioid overdose crisis that claimed 914 lives in British Columbia in 2016.

Low-income community members wanted to speak against this motion because they were offended that overdose prevention money was being redirected to the police. Community Police Centres are part of the criminalization of drugs and social stigmatization of addiction that make people more vulnerable to overdoses, they wanted to say.

The fifteen who travelled to City Hall to speak against the Police Centre motion included members of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP). CCAP put out a public statement against the Policing Centre and called for others to write to Council with opposition. Nearly thirty people sent letters against the Policing Centre, including the Alliance Against Displacement letter, which we’re including below.

But while seats at Vancouver City Council are divided between three civic parties, none of them were interested in low-income and drug user opposition to the Policing Centre. Most delegates from VANDU and CCAP were not allowed to speak because Council voted against hearing speakers who had submitted late speaking requests. CCAP organizer Maria Wallstam explained that the requirement to register to speak before 9:30am by phone or email is a barrier for low-income people, and particularly drug users, who don’t have access to phones or email, and whose lives are made precarious and unpredictable by the conditions of their impoverishment and police harassment.

Council was, however, interested in the opinions of business owners and police officers about the best ways to deliver overdose prevention services. The Vancouver Police Department officer present claimed that they plan to train business owners to administer naloxone and to encourage them to carry kits while walking their dogs in the neighbourhood.

Council’s indifference to the experiences and opinions of drug users themselves seems to oppose current recommendations about how to best craft overdose response initiatives. On January 26, 2017 a jury assembled by the BC Coroner’s office released a list of recommendations for government action based on their inquiry into last March’s overdose death of Brandon Jansen. One of those recommendations was to use the expertise of drug users themselves to guide future government action: to “consult with persons with lived experience with substance use dependency.”

Given the class of opinions Council consulted, it should not be surprising that they passed the motion to dedicate scarce overdose prevention dollars to opening the Strathcona Community Policing Centre.

The Volcano is publishing the following statement from Alliance Against Displacement against the Strathcona Community Policing Centre, which frames the issue as another moment in the ongoing criminalization and stigmatization of low-income peoples’ lives in Canada.

Opposing the Community Policing Centre in Strathcona & the healthcare expansion of Canada’s war on drugs

By Alliance Against Displacement

January 25, 2017

[C]ommunity policing mobilizes a self-selecting group to work with police and insulate them from scrutiny. It’s a way to generate some support for and increase the legitimacy of the police, not a serious solution to problems with state violence.

We Charge Genocide, Chicago


In a disturbing trend toward community policing as a response to state-sanctioned violence, police are asking for and receiving funding for outreach and health care activities that they are not qualified to offer and that cause more harm in communities most impacted by criminalization, stigma, and poor access to healthcare.

There were 215 overdose deaths in Vancouver in 2016, with the majority of them in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). In the midst of this tragedy, it is shameful that the City of Vancouver will use funds set aside to mitigate the overdose crisis for a project which will criminalize and stigmatize low-income people who use drugs. We are writing to oppose the development of a new Community Policing Centre in the Strathcona neighbourhood and the City proposal to increase funding for the existing Community Policing Centres.

Cops are not health care workers

Affected communities, workers, and organizations across the country are saying ‘no’ to police in healthcare. On January 23, 2017, health workers in Toronto reported the failures of a 6-month pilot program between the Toronto Police, the John Howard Society and Toronto Public Health’s needle exchange program, The Works. They found that officers in an outreach role with people who use substances drove people away from services and created deep distrust in the health services themselves.

This week in Victoria, a campaign called #NoCopsOnOutreach is resisting a Victoria Police Department budget request for $240,000 to add to their $52 million/year budget to embed two more officers on ACT mental health teams. Coalition members argue that embedding police in mental health teams criminalizes people with mental illness. The presence of police reinforces myths that people with mental illness are dangerous and mobilizes psychiatric approaches that use force and coercion against patients. Criminal justice responses to health care issues have no proven track record of improved outcomes for people in need. These approaches should be abandoned in pursuit of caring responses that work.

Victoria’s proposal to include a direct police presence in mental health outreach comes alongside a separate decision by provincial and regional governments to hire private security guards to patrol 24/7 outside a new overdose prevention site, reporting visible drug trade to the police and intimidating people trying to access emergency health services.

In Surrey, the City and RCMP have launched a new surveillance and containment strategy for the Strip (135A Street) centering on the permanent presence of an “Outreach Team” comprised of twelve cops and four bylaw officers. Under intense police gaze, the daily lives of residents are carefully monitored and scrutinized. If someone is caught using drugs, they may be removed from the Strip, red-zoned and coerced into a treatment and recovery program. When cops or bylaw officers find people camped out in other spaces, they force them to pack up and move to the Strip where they can be watched.

What police call “building relationships” with “vulnerable” residents is more like a relentless barrage of interrogating questions about who people are, how many are in a tent, what are they using to keep warm, why don’t they move into shelters, etc. And people who come onto the Strip to visit friends or family are interrogated by police and sometimes told to leave.

It is becoming clear that government funding for overdose prevention health services does not represent a turn away from the war on drugs towards a non-criminal harm reduction approach. Vancouver’s Community Policing Centre funding, the pig-ification of mental health outreach in Victoria, and the militarized police occupation of the Surrey Strip expose a health-cop dual strategy where health services are brought into synch with criminal arrests.

Property and business owners are the community in Community Policing

The role of police is to enforce laws, uphold a capitalist and colonial system, and force people into line with the status quo. The police are co-opting language and frameworks of health and safety to surveil, regulate, coerce, and punish people who fall outside the realm of what is currently acceptable and respectable. Every government inquiry and report tells that the criminalization of vulnerable people, including drug users, causes harm, so why is the City of Vancouver positioning more policing as the solution? It’s a clear case of doublespeak – creating outreach teams and services of personnel with a monopoly on state-sanctioned violence whose constant presence constructs the space and its residents as inescapably criminalized.

People who have experienced police as physical violence and abuse of power, as facilitating their arrest and forced confinement in jail or the hospital, or as the cause for the break up and removal from their families, homes, and lands, do not trust or feel safe with police. Police presence drives people away from healthcare, creates distrust, and leads to social isolation, ill health, and death. Forcing people to interact with police to receive health care services minimizes and dismisses how people have been harmed by the criminal justice system. It tells people who have experienced this harm that their experiences and wishes don’t matter, and that there are experts who have decided what is best for them.

Advocates of community policing, like the Strathcona Community Policing Centre, say that they are not the police because they are run by volunteers who are residents in the community. But to low-income people who are criminalized, it doesn’t matter if it is a cop or a wannabe cop who harasses you—the effect is very similar.

Community policing initiatives are direct extensions of the police state. They work in close collaboration with the police, and in the community they work as the “eyes and ears” of the police. Community policing initiatives create vigilante culture where residents are encouraged to report anything that seemed suspicious, including no-harm acts like sitting on a sidewalk and the public consumption of drugs and alcohol. Vigilante policing puts low-income people at risk of social exclusion and displacement.

The problems with an increased presence of police have been show in Vancouver. In 2006, the City initiated a crackdown on public drug use in the DTES. An academic study of the crackdown and its “Citywide Enforcement Team” found that an increased presence of policing resulted in drug users rushing their injections, injecting in riskier locations, not practicing safe drug use, and an increase of unsafe syringe disposal. We know that community police will have the same effects. Police partnerships, police themselves, or community police all mean the same thing: people who use drugs are seen as outsiders and are pushed out of the neighbourhood.

Support drug user organizations

Across BC, people who use drugs have been on the frontline of the fentanyl crisis, and often they are the first people to attend to overdoses. Particularly in the DTES, we see that it is organizations such as VANDU and the Drug Users Resource Centre (which just lost its funding) that are best positioned to know what is needed. People who use drugs know best what is going on in their communities, what drugs are going around, what supports and services are needed, and what really does help. And yet such peer-led initiatives are chronically underfunded and politically undermined at every turn.

As primarily volunteer organizations, peer-based drug user groups like VANDU and DURC are the most effective means of intervening directly in the overdose crisis. The $200,000 proposed for the Strathcona Community Policing Centre should be re-directed towards drug user led community groups and initiatives where it can make a difference in stopping the overdose crisis, rather than to more police resources, where it will only make the problem worse.

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