Policing poverty in Victoria
By Gordon O'Connor, March 2012
In its desire to keep streets safe, has the City spent too much on ineffective and discriminatory policing?
The majority of people in our community appreciate the role that police play in society. Excepting the frustration felt after being stopped for a speeding ticket, most adults have faith in and feel protected by police. Statistics Canada reports that 83 percent of Canadians have a high level of confidence in law enforcement agencies.
Recently, however, a number of reports from across the country have demonstrated that the opposite is true for people experiencing poverty or homelessness. This inspired the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG) to investigate the relationship between Victoria’s street-involved people and its police department by interviewing over 100 members of Victoria’s street community.
VIPIRG’s report about this research—Out of Sight: Policing Poverty in Victoria—found that street-involved people experience discrimination, harassment and other abuses of authority by the police, primarily in relation to minor infractions in public spaces, rather than criminal activities.
The survey determined that most street-involved people are dealing with mental health or disability issues and that police are ill-suited to effectively handle them. “Interviews point to deleterious effects of policing on the physical and mental well-being of members of the Victoria street community,” said research coordinator Tamara Herman.
Such findings led VIPIRG to suggest sweeping changes at the federal, provincial and municipal levels to reform the relationship between police and the street community and create more effective strategies for confronting the issues presented by urban poverty.
ONE OF THE KEY FINDINGS of VIPIRG’s study was that health problems are endemic in Victoria’s street community. Only one of the 103 participants did not report having a mental health, chronic disability or addiction issue, and 52 percent said they were living with all three. This was juxtaposed with the fact that 32 percent of respondents reported having their safer drug use supplies (for injecting or smoking) confiscated by police, making it more likely they would compromise their health.
A majority of the interviewees spoke of personal belongings such as photos, identification cards and sleeping bags being confiscated, actions by the police that made their difficult lives even moreso.
Research coordinator Tamara Herman suggests that “these forms of interaction contribute to a criminalization of mental illness that unjustly and unnecessarily undercuts the health and well-being of street-involved people.”
Heather Hobbs, a community activist with Harm Reduction Victoria agrees that encounters between the street community and police may be exacerbating health issues and social problems. “Meeting human suffering with surveillance, harassment and punishment causes significant stress for people whose only learned coping mechanism for stress may be their next hit.” She went on to say that “beating people down, literally and metaphorically, when they’re living a life of social exclusion and neglect serves to further isolate, traumatize, and dehumanize the very people our community should be drawing closer.”
Many in the street community perceive themselves as being discriminated against based on their social status. “Who is treated unfairly?” asked one survey participant rhetorically: “Anybody that’s not in a business suit, that doesn’t look clean or professional.” Another remarked, “If you look like a homeless person [the police] automatically treat you differently and unfairly.”
VIPIRG researchers queried subjects about police behaviour in relation to specific aspects of the BC Police Act’s Code of Professional Conduct. While 38 percent of respondents reported having at least one positive interaction with police over the past five years, a striking number of people reported witnessing abuses of authority: 78 percent report witnessing police search, detainment or arrest without sufficient cause, while another 48 percent claim to have experienced that themselves. Eighty-six percent report witnessing incidents of unnecessary force being used (39 say they’ve been victims of it themselves). And 83 percent report witnessing police acting rude, uncivil or using abusive language (64 percent claim personal experience).
One interview subject said: “The other day, [I] was sitting on a bench and the police asked [me] to move. It took a bit of time so they threw [me] against a wall and handcuffed [me] even though [I] was compliant.”
Research from Statistics Canada demonstrated street-involved people in Victoria are being approached by police at a frequency disproportionate to the general population. Sixty-four percent of respondents had been ticketed in the past three years and 30 percent had been arrested—mostly for minor infractions in public spaces rather than Criminal Code violations. The most common reasons cited for being approached or stopped by police were loitering, sitting, intoxication, trespassing, and using drugs.
There was also specific correlation between the experience of homelessness and encounters with police related to the use of space. Of 77 research participants who had been homeless in the past two years, 83 percent were approached to move off of public property (70 percent off private property). One interview subject said, “It makes my life incredibly difficult. You have to constantly be on the move and on the lookout. You can’t sit or stand anywhere because you’re asked to move on. They treat you like non-people.”
Herman points to such testimony as evidence that “‘Safe Streets’ acts and certain municipal bylaws criminalize the day-to-day activities of the street community by targeting activities most residents are able to perform in the privacy of their homes.”
THESE PROBLEMS RELATED TO “social profiling” are not unique to Victoria. Reports from other Canadian cities draw similar conclusions and the issue has become pervasive enough to attract attention from national service agencies. For instance, the Canadian Mental Health Association has raised concerns about the “criminalization of mental health” and the capacity for police to meet the needs of this population.
“The fact that police have become de facto ‘first responders’ in the mental health system has a number of implications,” notes the report. “Traditional policing, with its focus on the use of force, does not adequately prepare police to intervene with people with mental health issues.”
The Canada HIV/AIDS network has similar concerns about interactions between police and drug users: “Intensive policing…can lead to a number of behaviours with health and safety consequences. These include a reluctance to carry safer drug use supplies, the unsafe disposal of injecting equipment…the dispersal of people who use drugs…”
Even some police departments agree that law enforcement is a poor response to poverty. Several have gone on record demanding improvements to social and mental health services so that police will not have to play the role of social workers. The report quoted the 2007 Mayor’s Task Force on Breaking the Cycle of Mental Illness, Addictions and Homelessness as stating that “years of enforcement have not had much impact on the problems of homelessness and drug use in downtown Victoria or anywhere else in the world…enforcement simply moves homeless residents around so that another set of businesses and neighbours end up with the problem.” When finding housing for 60 individuals who generated many calls was made a priority through the Victoria Integrated Community Outreach Team, calls related to them were reduced by 74 percent.
With such a consensus of opinion and evidence that policing is an ineffective mechanism for addressing poverty, and with the admission of this by the Mayor’s own task force, it bears asking why the City of Victoria devotes so many resources to this strategy. Victoria council spent years in court fighting to ban camping in city parks and having lost (twice), their-fall back was to legislate that temporary shelters be taken down at 7 am. Council passed the infamous chattel bylaw that instructs police to confiscate possessions left in public areas and the new streets and traffic bylaw amendment that outlaws anyone who sits, squats, kneels or lays down on a city boulevard. These decisions make poverty a criminal problem and put police on the front lines to deal with an inherently social issue.
Victoria has more police per capita than any other Canadian city and in 2009 it had the highest per capita police budget of any city in BC. Policing poverty likely accounts for a significant portion of these resources. VicPD’s own strategic plan makes clear that the police have aimed at a decrease in public disorder calls, an increase in drug enforcement arrests and an increase in “citizens’ feeling of safety.” This has led to a heavy policing of the street community, despite the apparent ineffectiveness of their approach.
“Police argue that they are under-resourced, but the problem is that resources are being deployed in an inefficient way,” said City Councillor Lisa Helps. “If we took money out of the police budget and put it towards treatment for mental health, harm reduction and employment creation, we would watch the demand for policing go down.”
THE OUT OF SIGHT REPORT CONCLUDES with recommendations for reform at the federal, provincial and municipal levels that would end the practice of regularly stopping, searching and ticketing street- involved people. It also suggests changes to hold the Victoria Police Department accountable to all people regardless of social status, and urges funding be redirected from enforcement to mental health and addiction services.
“We can’t police poverty out of sight and expect it to disappear,” said Tamara Herman. “If we want to live in a sustainable community we need to stop targeting our most marginalized people and create an environment that is safer for everyone.”
On February 16, VIPIRG launched its “Safer for All Campaign” at a public meeting that drew close to 200 people. One of its first moves is to get as many people as possible to attend and speak at a Victoria City Council meeting on March 8 at 7:30 pm. On their agenda will be asking the City to rescind bylaws around confiscating personal possessions and to rethink its spending on policing.
Out of Sight: Policing Poverty in Victoria is available for download at www.vipirg.ca.
Gordon O’Connor is a community organizer on Coast Salish Territories (Victoria, BC) and a member of the VIPIRG coordinating collective.