Downtown Eastside residents are outraged after a video was posted to social media showing a police officer violently shoving a man to the ground, then attempting to confiscate the phone of a witness.
People who live in the vulnerable neighbourhood say the incident is far from isolated, and they want the public to call for immediate changes to police accountability and for alternatives to policing.
“This… is how they act here every day and have for years,” said Karen Ward, a community advocate and resident of the Downtown Eastside, where many people live in poverty and struggle with substance use and mental illness. The community also has a higher proportion of Black and Indigenous residents than the rest of the city.
“I’m glad that people are starting to believe us, because they need to,” Ward said. “We need to stop them. This is outrageous, out-fucking-rageous.”
While the video was posted to TikTok and Twitter on Monday, the incident happened in September 2020. The video shows several police officers interacting with an elderly woman, when a man approaches the officers. The man expresses concern about their plan to transport the woman in a police wagon and asks them why they can’t use a police car.
One officer tells him to “get out of our face,” then suddenly shoves him to the ground. The man falls backwards and the sound of his head hitting the pavement can be heard in the video.
“The officer gave him basically no warning before he shoved him to the ground like he did,” said Tyler Nielsen, the man who took the video while he was walking to work. From what he saw, Nielsen said, the man was offering to put the woman in a taxi to take her home.
The Vancouver Police Department says officers were responding to reports of a health crisis when they came across the elderly woman, who they say was intoxicated. Officers intended to drive her home using the police wagon, according to Tania Visintin, a VPD spokesperson.
In the video, officers can be seen putting the man in handcuffs. Nielsen said the man’s head had visible scrapes on it, but police prevented him from getting closer. Visintin said the man was checked by paramedics and then taken to hospital.
In the video, Nielsen can be heard reacting in dismay when the man is pushed down and saying he is filming the incident. “He didn’t do shit,” Nielsen exclaims.
One officer asks another, “It’s on film?” then approaches Nielsen, telling him he needs to confiscate his phone because the video is “evidence.”
Nielsen told The Tyee the officer “aggressively” tried to take his phone, going so far as to grab him by the arm, but he kept telling the officer he didn’t have to give him his phone.
The VPD’s professional standards section and the Office of Police Complaint Commissioner both investigated the incident in the fall, but closed the file as “unsubstantiated,” according to Visintin.
But now that the video has come to light, the complaints commission will review their investigation and determine whether further steps need to be taken under B.C.’s Police Act, said commissioner Andrea Spindler. Spindler said the original report cannot be made public because of confidentiality provisions under the Police Act.
Nielsen said he attempted to post the video to several social media platforms soon after he took it, but the posts kept getting removed.
His attempts to share the video with several local news outlets also went nowhere.
“This is a pretty common thing,” Nielsen said. “I spent a lot of years homeless in the Downtown Eastside, and a lot of the time people don’t have a voice and a lot of the time these things are not filmed, so I feel like people are taken advantage of. They don’t have the same protections other people have.”
Recently, he mentioned the video to a co-worker, BeeLee Lee, and she asked if she could post it on TikTok and Twitter. This time the video was widely shared and seen.
Lee said she found the video very disturbing, and said it appears from the footage that police officers are practised in demanding that people who film incidents hand their phones over.
Sarah Blyth, the executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society, said it happens often in the neighbourhood. “If people let them, police will take the phone,” Blyth said.
Canadians can legally take video of police doing their jobs, numerous legal and privacy experts have said, as long as filming doesn’t interfere with an active investigation.
Lee said she regularly sees troubling incidents involving police behaviour in the Downtown Eastside and is calling for officers to wear body cameras.
Blyth and her staff, who run indoor and outdoor overdose prevention sites in the Downtown Eastside, have regularly had tense encounters with some police officers.
Ronnie Grigg, the former manager of the OPS, reported being harassed repeatedly by two police officers when he worked at the site in 2018 and 2019. Grigg was one of 17 people who filed complaints against Bradley Chichak and Adam Hohmann, who are no longer allowed to work in part of the Downtown Eastside or work together on the same shift.
In April, Blyth recorded Const. Deepak Sood threatening to “smack” her and lunging at her, sparking an investigation by the VPD and the OPCC.
Ward said the neighbourhood desperately needs help, but not from police. Police regularly help city sanitation workers throw away homeless people’s belongings on Hastings Street in daily street sweeps. The sweeps also target people who are selling items on the street.
Police also attend incidents where people are in the middle of full-blown mental health crises, interactions that are sometimes fatal.
“We don’t need the police. We don’t want police housing, police health care, police services,” Ward said. “Yesterday I saw eight of them walking down the street telling people to pack up their stuff and leave. This is an occupying army. This is not OK.”
To add insult to injury, Ward said, the Vancouver Police Foundation recently put up a billboard in the neighbourhood that warns people against asking strangers for help.
The message was intended to warn the public about recent distraction thefts, according to the VPD. But one of the billboards loomed right above the outdoor overdose prevention site at 99 W. Pender St.
Ward said it’s the wrong message to send to people who do need help — just not from police.