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Municipal Politics

Downtown Eastside Residents Say They Were Taunted and Harassed by Two Police Officers

Complaint filed by 17 people shows the need for special training for those assigned to the neighbourhood, advocate says.

Jen St. Denis 27 May 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

In September 2018, Mari-Louise Harpe went outside her building in the Downtown Eastside to have a cigarette. Two police officers told her she had to move, even though Harpe tried to explain she lived in the building.

Then one of the officers told the 47-year-old Métis woman he knew she was a drug dealer. She said she wasn’t, but the officer kept insisting she was, according to Harpe. She said the officers didn’t find any drugs on her, and she has no criminal record.

According to a complaint Harpe filed with the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, that interaction was the start of a pattern of harassment by the two officers, Bradley Chichak and Adam Hohmann, who regularly patrolled the Downtown Eastside. The officers continued to call her a drug dealer, even though she says she’s not and avoids pain medication that has opiates in it.

On one occasion, Harpe alleges, one of the officers pushed her face away with his hand when she attempted to offer a detained man a cigarette, even though she had first asked for permission from a female officer. During other interactions, Harpe alleges the officers called her names like “cow” and “c*nt.”

After she filed a complaint against the two officers, she was coming home from feeding a friend’s pet on the morning of Sept. 1, 2019, when she noticed the officers slowly following her in their truck. Harpe was upset and went to sit with a friend at Pigeon Park, where she captured them on video driving slowly past her and her friend.

“Do you want to hear my side of the story?” one of the officers, identified as Chichak by Harpe, says in the video, before questioning her friend about what she is doing at the park. As the officers drive away, the officer identified as Chichak appears to wave at Harpe and say, “Hi mom.”

The Tyee contacted the Vancouver Police Department and the Vancouver Police Union and asked to interview Chichak and Hohmann.

VPD spokesperson Sgt. Steve Addison said the complaints are still being investigated by the OPCC. "The police officers participated in mediation, which was led by an experienced and independent mediator, with oversight from the OPCC," Addison said in an email. "The mediation process did not result in an outcome that was agreed upon by all participants."

The police union did not respond.*

Harpe is one of 17 Downtown Eastside residents and workers who have filed a complaint about harassment from Chichak and Hohmann. The group complaint was organized by Pivot Legal Society, an organization that challenges legislation, policies and practices “that undermine human rights, intensify poverty and perpetuate stigma.”

Downtown Eastside residents and advocates have complained for years about heavy-handed policing in the neighbourhood, where many people use, buy and sell drugs while also living in poverty. The VPD calls the neighbourhood “a very complex environment with unique public safety challenges” and says its specialized outreach officers work closely with other officers when dealing with people who are homeless or have addiction or mental health issues.

A complaint against two specific officers from so many different complainants is unusual, said Anna Cooper, a lawyer who works with Pivot Legal.

“This is the first time that we’ve done this — as far as I’m aware, this is the first time that this has been done, period,” Cooper said. The allegations “range from verbal harassment and racist comments, demeaning comments through to actual threats of assault,” she said.

After hearing complaints about the two officers from several community members, Pivot staff and community advocates asked for more people to come forward and posted photos of the officers at several locations in the neighbourhood as well as on social media.

Pivot then compiled the stories of harassment and filed the complaint to the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner in March 2019. The OPCC admitted all 17 complaints, which had to meet the standard that “the conduct alleged would, if substantiated, constitute misconduct under the Police Act.”

In the two years since the complaint was filed, the complainants have tried to go through mediation with the VPD and the two officers but ended up rejecting that process, because they felt the officers didn’t engage in good faith and weren’t prepared to agree to a meaningful resolution.

The New Westminster Police Department is continuing to investigate the individual complaints against Chichak and Hohmann.

After Harpe recorded the officers speaking to her and her friend at Pigeon Park, Pivot reported the incident to the VPD and requested that Hohmann and Chichak be reassigned. The two officers were not allowed to work in a small area in the heart of the Downtown Eastside and were not allowed to work on the same shift, according to Pivot Legal.

Ronnie Grigg, who has worked in safe drug consumption sites in the Downtown Eastside for 12 years, is also one of the complainants.

“I don’t think the community is safe with these two officers, and so I don’t think that they should be employed as police officers,” Grigg said.

Grigg’s experience with the two officers started in 2018 when Grigg was managing the Overdose Prevention Society site on East Hastings. Two OPS workers had rushed outside to attend to a man who had overdosed.

“Those two cops had already Narcan’d the guy, but he needed oxygen,” Grigg said, referring to the brand name for the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone.

One of the OPS workers “put his hands on one of the officers, to kind of, like, step around him,” Grigg said. That led to the worker being detained by the officers, while the other overdose responder was left with no one to help him in a high-pressure situation where someone’s life was at stake, Grigg said.

Grigg said the relationship between OPS staff and the two officers didn’t get any better, and a low point was when the officers confiscated marijuana and other items from a table OPS staff had set up as part of a program to distribute pot to help people get off opioids.

After he joined the group complaint, Grigg said the officers would often call out to him on the street while he was at work.

He recalled a period in the winter of 2018 and 2019 when the OPS had been designated an overnight warming shelter by the City of Vancouver. When Grigg would go out to get supplies or work with someone on the street, they would often call out his name mockingly.

“They would ask if I was afraid, they would ask me how I’m doing, they would say they just want to be friends, that it’s a free country and they can talk to me if they want,” Grigg said. He said the harassment continued even after he told them he didn’t want to speak to them unless it was about police business.

Grigg said not all police officers behaved like Chichak and Hohmann allegedly did, and he’s been able to work with many police officers who work in the Downtown Eastside.

“Getting interference instead of help from police? It’s unacceptable in a public health crisis," Grigg said.

Pivot’s Cooper said there is no special training for police officers who work in the Downtown Eastside, and there doesn’t appear to be any appetite on the part of the force to change that.

Aside from the individual complaints, Pivot Legal also attempted to launch a service and policy complaint about how police were selected and trained to work in the Downtown Eastside.

“But rather than engaging in that in any meaningful way, they actually applied to close that complaint, without proper notice to us, and refused to reopen it even in after a request from the police complaint commissioner himself,” Cooper said.

Grigg said it’s clear the problem is not just confined to a few police officers.

Earlier this month, Sarah Blyth, the executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society, filmed VPD officer Deepak Sood saying “I’ll smack you” and “go back to dealing drugs” to her after she asked him to stop bothering people in front of the site.

Harpe says the experience has made her scared to walk around her neighbourhood or wait for the bus.

“I can’t go to the grocery store by myself. I have to pay people to walk with me, so I don’t travel alone,” Harpe wrote in a statement posted on Pivot’s website. “It’s embarrassing and humiliating because people think I did something wrong. But I didn’t.”

*Story updated on May 27 at 3:37 p.m. to include information from the VPD provided after publication.  [Tyee]

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