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Municipal Politics

Vancouver Votes to ‘Decriminalize Poverty.’ Over to You, Police and Province

Council moves to replace some policing with social services. Just don’t expect change any time soon.

Jen St. Denis 29 Jul

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

This week — after a marathon three-day session to hear from hundreds of speakers — Vancouver city councillors voted unanimously to “decriminalize poverty.”

What does that mean? Ideally, sometime in the future, Vancouver police won’t spend as much time and resources policing homelessness, people with mental health and drug addictions, or sex workers.

The motion comes after council voted to tell the police board to end street checks on July 23.

“This is a huge conversation, and it won’t be easy,” said Coun. Christine Boyle. “But council has acknowledged we need a different approach.”

The motion, which was brought forward by Coun. Jean Swanson, doesn’t call for an outright cut to the police budget, but Swanson hopes it will set the stage for an eventual cut, possibly as early as this December.

Boyle thinks 2021 is a more realistic timeframe, given the three substantial pieces of work that will have to be completed by city staff, the Vancouver Police Department and a number of community groups.

The motion asks the VPD “to itemize the work they do that is related to mental health, homelessness, drug use, sex work and the amount of money spent on it, including the number of tickets issued from enforcing related bylaws as well as the cost of this enforcement.”

From a range of community groups, council wants to know “how the city could support existing and future community-based harm reduction and safety services.”

City staff have been tasked to create “a plan, timeline and budget to de-prioritize policing as a response to mental health, sex work, homelessness and substance use and to prioritize funding community-led harm reduction and safety initiatives in these areas.”

Boyle warned that the city department that will do that work is currently “swamped,” and she didn’t expect a report back before the city budget process starts in late fall.

The B.C. government is in the midst of a review of policing in the province, and that will also be a factor in council’s work to reassess policing priorities, Boyle added.

Calls to “defund the police” have been growing in the United States as well as Canada in the wake of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

The deaths of three Canadians this June — Chantel Moore, Rodney Levi and Ejaz Choudry — has put a spotlight on how police handle mental health calls and “wellness” checks.

On July 24, 27 and 28, speakers told Vancouver council that the criminal justice system isn’t working for marginalized people.

“I think we are looking at more than just mental health apprehensions,” said Katherine Shortreed, a lawyer who represents many clients who struggle with mental health and addictions issues.

“We’re looking at sex work, homelessness, how much time officers are spending evicting people from tent cities, how much time are officers spending on arresting that guy for that 27th shoplifting offence because he needs more money for drugs.”

Tonye Aganaba spent their allotted speakers’ time of five minutes to tell council about alternative models to policing. They told The Tyee their own experience has made them distrustful of police.

After being pulled over in rural B.C., Aganaba said a police officer asked them if they had any drugs in the car and then impounded the vehicle, “leaving two people of colour on the side of the road.”

After another upsetting experience of attempting to report a sexual assault to the Vancouver Police Department and seeing other members of the Black community repeatedly street-checked, Aganaba said they would never call the police again.

Aganaba said an activist community has formed around the two motions, and they plan to stay active to monitor what happens with the call to ban street checks and the "decriminalize poverty" motion.

Earlier this spring, the Vancouver Police Board refused to make a one per cent cut to its budget requested by council as the COVID-19 crisis squeezed municipal budgets.

Speaking to the "decriminalize poverty" motion, Ralph Kaisers, the president of the police union, warned council about cutting the VPD’s budget, saying reducing funds to the tune of $6 million could mean 60 fewer police officers.

Boyle clarified to The Tyee that that $6-million figure is one floated by staff earlier this month and refers to foregoing an increase to the police budget, not a cut to existing funding.

Kaisers said the number of officers has remained the same since 2009, even as calls for service and population have risen.

Deputy police chief Howard Chow told council that the VPD has been running several innovative mental health response programs for years and has been responding to fewer mental-health related calls over the past decade.

But, he said, 91 per cent of calls to police from mental health professionals about clients involve violence and 20 per cent involve weapons.

Chow said he agrees that more funding is needed for mental health, addictions and homelessness, but he said that funding shouldn’t come from the police budget.

“To pull it from policing is a recipe for disaster in terms of public safety,” Chow said.  [Tyee]

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