Vancouver council has asked the city’s police department to cut its budget, end street checks and move to end policing that targets people living in poverty.
In response, the police board has said no to a one-per-cent budget cut, delayed even a review of street checks and created a new “Neighbourhood Response Unit” tasked with responding to low-level crime and checking on homeless people.
Vancouver Coun. Christine Boyle has a lot of questions about the new unit.
“Particularly because it doesn’t line up with the direction that council clearly supported earlier this year, to be decriminalizing poverty and looking at non-criminal issues through a different approach than policing,” Boyle told The Tyee.
Three Downtown Eastside organizations have launched a formal complaint about the new police unit with the Vancouver Police Board. They fear it will increase the police focus on people who are homeless and the Downtown Eastside, which they say is already over-policed.
Meenakshi Mannoe, a criminalization and policing campaigner with Pivot Legal, said increased policing in the neighbourhood could result in harassment of people dealing with illicit drug use or mental illness.
“There’s a real concern around how police are going to be enforcing stigmatizing laws or bylaws that are contributing to the displacement of people who rely on public space in the city,” she said. Pivot filed the complaint, along with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society.
People who live in the Downtown Eastside say it's common for police to confiscate small amounts of drugs and money. Every afternoon, city workers and police patrol East Hastings Street and tell people they need to move their belongings off the sidewalk. In a statement, Flora Monroe, a board member of VANDU and the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, said police "harass, bully and target our communities."
This summer, Vancouver city council passed two motions on policing. One asked police to end street checks and another called for the decriminalization of poverty. The motions came after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked North America-wide protests against racism in the criminal justice system, including in Vancouver.
A street check is when police stop someone who is not part of a criminal investigation and question them about their activities or ask to see identification. Statistics for 2016 through 2019 have shown that police disproportionately check Black and Indigenous people.
Council passed the motion to end street checks unanimously, with Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung abstaining.
But in September the Vancouver Police Board opted to delay a decision on even reviewing the practice to February, saying they needed to see the 2020 data on street checks first.
After hearing from hundreds of speakers, council also passed a motion to “decriminalize poverty,” based on the idea of reallocating resources currently spent on policing homelessness, drug use and sex work to non-policing alternatives like social workers or health providers.
As a first step, councillors have asked police to report back on the amount of time and money they spend dealing with mental health, homelessness, sex work and drug use.
But advocates say it appears the police are doing the opposite by creating the new Neighbourhood Response Unit to deal with “lower priority crime.”
At the same time council was passing the two motions, concern about crime in downtown Vancouver was rising.
Homelessness had increased as COVID-19 restrictions closed some services, and many low-income housing providers stopped allowing guests in supportive housing buildings out of fear the illness could spread.
Complaints about violence, discarded needles and public drug use in the Yaletown neighbourhood grew as unhoused people from Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside moved into a hotel near Yaletown in May. In July, a large tent city formed in Strathcona Park, sparking complaints about trespassing, assaults and weapons.
Not only has the city struggled with an increase in homelessness, overdose deaths have also shot up to record levels — another side effect of COVID-19 restrictions and border closures.
In October, many Yaletown residents opposed a proposed overdose prevention site at Seymour and Helmcken streets, telling council they worried it would bring crime to their neighbourhood. Council approved the site despite those fears.
Crime in Vancouver’s downtown core this year has fallen or been at similar levels as 2019, police statistics show, with only break-and-enters and mischief offences rising.
But police have released detailed statistics by neighbourhood that show arson, assaults, weapons, break-and-enters and mischief increasing in the three-block radius around Strathcona Park, as well as in Chinatown. The more detailed statistics also show break-and-enters, arson, mischief to property and weapons offences increasing on Granville Street, and assaults, mischief and break-and-enters increasing in Yaletown.
Speaking to media on Nov. 9, Deputy Chief Howard Chow said a survey the police had commissioned found 78 per cent of city residents were concerned about crime, and the department was creating the new Neighbourhood Response Unit in response. Respondents said they avoided the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown, Gastown and Granville Street because of fear about crime, according to the survey.
Chow said the new Neighbourhood Response Unit would deal with “lower priority” calls. His examples included “the person that's using drugs in the park... the person that may be sleeping in your doorway and you can't get in or out of your building... the person that may be scaring away your customers in front of your business."
At a press conference Friday, the VPD announced that the new unit had responded to 300 calls and told reporters those calls had resulted in 11 charges. Officers said they had stopped a man for not wearing a helmet while cycling and discovered he was riding a stolen bicycle. They also stopped a man for trespassing in front of a fast food restaurant on Granville Street and found he was carrying several weapons and had an outstanding warrant for theft under $5,000. Officers also thwarted a man who was attempting to steal a woman’s purse, and intervened when they saw a man assaulting a woman.
Chow has also said a main duty of the new unit is to check on homeless people and connect them with social services.
Councillors Sarah Kirby-Yung and Melissa De Genova support the creation of the neighbourhood response unit. Kirby-Yung said she had received many emails from residents who are fearful of crime, including a message from a woman in Yaletown who had seen a man brandishing an exacto knife outside her building and was afraid to go outside.
Kirby-Yung and De Genova said the new neighbourhood response unit is needed and would strike a balance between preventing crime and connecting homeless people to services. They emphasized that homeless people are often the victims of crime. De Genova added that she was disappointed that council had delayed a public meeting she proposed on public safety.
But Boyle said she would prefer to see a different approach to community safety.
“I would like to see approaches to public safety that are community led where we're able to reach out and meet people where they're at,” Boyle said.
“I think it's clear that we need safe supply, that we need more housing, that we need to be addressing the root causes of issues the people are facing rather than just focusing on criminalizing the survival behaviour.”
Boyle said it’s her understanding that the police are supposed to take into account the wishes of council.
But according to the Vancouver Police Department, “municipal departments in B.C. do not take direction on policy or governance from city council.”
The department also says street checks “continue to be a valuable tool for police.”
“In B.C. a street check occurs when a police officer encounters someone believed to be involved in criminal activity or a suspicious circumstance, and documents the interaction,” said VPD media liaison officer Tania Visintin in an email. “They are not random or arbitrary checks. The check is voluntary and the officer is required to communicate that to the person being checked. A street check can also occur if a member of the public calls police to report a public safety concern.”
The police board rejected council’s May request for a one-per-cent spending cut because of the pandemic. In a letter to council, police board chair Barj Dhahan explained that the cut could impact public safety in “uncertain times.” Dhahan told council the possibility of having to police large protests like those in Minneapolis was also a reason for not reducing spending. Mayor Kennedy Stewart chairs the police board, but seven of the nine members are appointed by the provincial government. One other member is appointed by the municipal council.
The police department’s $314-million budget is about 20-per-cent of total city spending. With pressure to cut expenses because of the effects of COVID-19, Boyle said that portion of the budget is being “actively discussed.”
Boyle said given the pandemic’s impact on city revenues and the need to move forward on delayed initiatives dealing with anti-Black racism, Indigenous healing and wellness and other issues, police spending has to be reviewed.
“There are obviously a huge number of pressures on the city's budget in this coming year,” Boyle said. “And the police portion of the budget is the largest portion.”