Grassroots cop watch

By Simon Nattrass, April 2013

Heavy-handed policing of homeless and poor people is the focus of a new affadavit campaign.

Marianne was visiting a friend the first time it happened. Like a scene from a TV crime drama, officers with the Victoria Police Department entered the home and, after a brief search, began accusing her of using illegal drugs based on her proximity to paraphernalia belonging to the house’s occupant. Marianne told the officers that she had stopped using. Finding no evidence to support their assumption, police left without pursuing charges. 

So it came as a surprise when Marianne’s employer called the next day to ask about the incident. Officers had contacted her boss with details of the previous day’s events, violating both her privacy and the Police Act. Following another similar incident—again resolved without charges but followed by a second interaction between officers and Marianne’s employer—a phone call from her boss informed her that she had been fired.

This is just one of a growing number of stories being collected from members of the street community by the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG) under the organization’s affidavit program. The program is part of the organization’s current campaign known as the “Community Action Plan (CAP) on Discrimination,” and has outreach workers collecting sworn statements detailing instances of profiling and discrimination by the Victoria Police. 

The CAP on Discrimination mirrors the work of Vancouver’s Pivot Legal Society, which in 2002 collected 50 affidavits in a similar program targetting the Vancouver Police Department. The resulting report To Serve and Protect detailed the aggressive and illegal style of policing that had become routine in the Downtown East Side under the command of then VPD Chief Jamie Graham. Statements from both homeless and housed people revealed the VPD’s use of excessive force, enforcement of illegal no-go zones, unlawful and demoralizing strip searches, and mistreatment of prisoners and detainees matching the United Nations definition of torture. 

“The reason we have the police force that we have now in Vancouver is because there was an organized effort on behalf of and in partnership with marginalized communities,” remembers civil liberties critic David Eby. After releasing To Serve and Protect, Pivot and other organizations called on the VPD, City of Vancouver, and the province to conduct an inquiry into systemic abuse of authority and to implement improvements to monitoring and complaints processes. The resulting controversy prompted the Vancouver Police to issue a public apology and implement drastic changes to policing in the Downtown East Side. 

According to Eby, whether officers see themselves as serving and protecting marginalized citizens or as standing between criminals and honest citizens depends on the orders from above. “Those two perspectives are very alive in policing…the question about how that actually goes down is generally the role of the chief and the deputy chiefs. They set the tone for the rest of the force.” Pivot’s work in 2002 was a response to the aggressive style of enforcement that filtered down from the office of Chief Jamie Graham. A decade later, and with Graham in command of the Victoria Police, it should come as no surprise that VIPIRG is reacting to the same type of complaints from street-involved people. 

While the complaints levelled against the Victoria Police fall short of the extreme abuses exhibited in Vancouver, the affidavits collected by VIPIRG staff, along with the organization’s 2012 report Out of Sight: Policing Poverty in Victoria, reveal a similar trend in local policing. A majority of respondents to the Out of Sight survey said they witnessed officers using excessive force, and nearly half had been on the receiving end of that force. Most also claimed to have experienced harassment, illegal stop-and-searches, or unreasonable confiscation of property like family photos and safer drug use supplies. 

The recent affidavits indicate that these incidents have remained just as much a problem for Victoria’s homeless over the past year. One man detailed a series of encounters with a particular officer. After losing his job and becoming homeless for the first time in his life at the age of 45, Barry somehow provoked the ire of an officer of the Victoria Police. Over the coming months, that same officer followed Barry around town, issuing around 40 citations for petty infractions like sitting on a set of stairs or resting his backpack on the sidewalk. Homeless due to a brief period of poverty, Barry is now saddled with hundreds of dollars in fines.

“We need to learn from mistakes in Vancouver,” says VIPIRG board member Mark Willson. “Victoria can protect the safety of all members of the community by taking all indications of abuse seriously, recognizing that existing complaints processes can be inadequate, and taking clear steps to prevent injustices towards underprivileged groups.” While some of the City’s current commitments (like becoming a signatory to the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination) provide a framework for dealing with certain kinds of profiling, Willson says it’s not as clear when it comes down to street-involved populations who are discriminated against based on their way of life, rather than on skin colour or cultural background. 

On March 28, VIPIRG will ask Victoria City Council first to endorse a statement of principals condemning discriminatory practices and then to adopt a series of commitments aimed at improving monitoring and accountability. The organization’s demands centre around the creation of a committee composed of service providers, City representatives, and members of the street community which would oversee the implementation of a half-dozen recommendations contained within the CAP on Discrimination. 

For months, VIPIRG has been drumming up support by sending representatives of the street community and supporting organizations to council meetings, explaining over and over the value of the CAP on Discrimination. Further tipping the scales in favour of approval at the March 28 meeting, the organization involved two sitting councillors—Lisa Helps and Marianne Alto—in drafting its recommendations. For her part, Helps says the diversity of organizations involved in the project could win favour from Council. It is this diversity of voices, says Helps, which is “really important both in terms of receiving City Council support as well as giving life to the actions that will come out of the document.”

The organization’s recommendations focus on strengthening non-discriminatory policies amongst various government bodies and ensuring the behaviours of police and service providers are more closely monitored. “We’re seeing this as a first step,” says Willson. “We’re asking the City to recognize social profiling alongside racial profiling as things that need to be addressed and then we can look at what are the next steps.” 

While the next steps for VIPIRG and its partner organizations may not be set in stone, the history of Vancouver’s response to the VPD’s harassment provides a few hints. The unification of the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood prompted the development of the Pivot Legal Society and strengthened organizations like the Downtown Eastside Residents Association and Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. Today these organizations form a sort of grassroots cop watch, springing out of the same community-based response to police harassment that VIPIRG is leading now.

Vancouver moved on from Jamie Graham’s approach to policing in large part thanks to the grassroots activism of Downtown Eastside residents and NGOs. Graham’s contract expires at the end of this year, and neither the Chief nor the City have publicized any plan to renew, so Victoria may soon be one step closer to revitalizing its police force. Regardless of whether the City supports the CAP on Discrimination, by rallying the community around this issue, VIPIRG and its partners are laying the groundwork for a more accountable police force in 2014.

Simon Nattrass is a political columnist and writer specializing in radical politics.