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Municipal Politics

Police in the Downtown Eastside: A World of Contradictions

I’ve been here 15 years. I use illegal drugs. But the cops haven’t come for me.

Nicolas Crier 31 Aug

Nicolas Crier is an adoptee of Cree heritage and a freelance writer. At 44 years old he has spent approximately half his life surviving in the streets and more than a decade in the Downtown Eastside.

[Editor’s note: Life in the Downtown Eastside has been intense this summer. Fire, violence and displacement have been prominent in the neighbourhood over the last few months. In addition to the ongoing work of our staff reporters covering the neighbourhood, we’re keen to see what’s happening through the eyes of local residents.

Nicolas Crier lives in the Downtown Eastside and is an overdose responder and outreach worker, and has worked for Megaphone’s Speakers Bureau and Megaphone. He was one of the inaugural recipients of the Megaphone and Read Mercer Entrance Award at Langara College this past school year. Tomorrow we will run another account from the neighbourhood by Crier’s colleague and fellow Read Mercer Entrance Award recipient Julie Chapman.]

Former Vancouver police chief Jim Chu would probably laugh his ass off if he could see me right now.

I am sitting inside 312 Main, a building that used to be his workplace, the office of the chief constable for the Vancouver Police Department at the southeast corner of Cordova and Main. Once known as the Public Safety Building, the building is now called 312 Main and exists as “a centre for social and economic innovation.” It houses non-profit societies like Megaphone (which is how I’m in here) and the Binners' Project, organizations dedicated to creating opportunities for people in the Downtown Eastside community.

As I sit here, working on an article about the police that I was commissioned by The Tyee to write, I remind myself of the time back in 2008 when I was once arrested and brought here to this building when it was headquarters for the VPD. I was booked for processing and I was then left to sit in a cell in the basement overnight. The next morning, I was shuffled with some other prisoners across the street to the courthouse for release from custody by a judge in the drug courts, which were brand new at the time.

The VPD moved out of this building in 2010. I moved here to Vancouver when I was 28 years old in 2007, from Calgary. It is now 2022. And within that 15-year timeline, I have interacted with the VPD exactly one time. That time resulted in consequences involving arrest: I had shoplifted a $5 sandwich from the 7-Eleven in Tinseltown mall to feed an obviously out-of-control marijuana addiction, which I picked up through self-medicating my depression from being homeless. I got off easy: six months’ probation, which I thankfully finished with zero breaches.

That was it. Not a single run-in with the law since then. In a decade and a half of wandering East Van doing illicit substances with known criminals every day, all day and every night, all night, I’ve not experienced so much as a routine bike cop spot-check to bust me for smoking meth in a bush.

No beatings. No bruises. No lawsuits. Not even a ticket.

The cop responding to the storekeeper's non-emergency call at the Tinseltown 7-Eleven was actually a nice guy, as I recall, interested to know why a writer would need to steal a sandwich. He seemed amused when I told him it was to trade for a joint. I remember him saying something to the effect of, “We’ve got real drug problems out here, kid. We don't have time for you scooping a sub sandwich so you can smoke weed... lol.”

A violent summer

However, some of the stories I hear from other people, or about other people regarding police conduct and interactions by active VPD officers, be they plain-clothed or in uniform, can be viscerally disturbing. I myself have never seen anything I would consider excessive, unless you count that photo on Facebook of four cops kneeling on an old man’s head. To me, it kind of looks like the one cop was about to punch him. But that’s just how it looked and as you know, dear reader, in a court of law, it's not about how it looks. It’s about what you can prove.

It often seems to me as if everyone around here hates cops. I’m from the streets, so I’m not exactly a fan either. But somehow, in a ridiculous moment of irony, some folks sitting on the sidewalk across the street seem to think I work for the police because they see me going in and out of here all the time.

See, the exterior of 312 Main has remained unchanged since it was the cop shop. It is a building with so much historical trauma for Indigenous people that the new owners turned the inside main lobby space into a longhouse and even thought to give the entire top floor to the Union of BC Indian Chiefs — which of course they did, and gratefully so.

So, for the record: it isn’t a police station anymore and I don’t work for the cops. Sheesh.

But I can understand why people are wary. Anyone who lives in the area has seen a lot over the years: youth violence, swarmings, kidnappings, random assaults and attacks on poor and homeless people. And of course the overdoses don’t even slow down to let the crime catch up.

On the last Saturday morning in July, a man was shot, almost fatally, after he, without provocation, viciously attacked a patrolling officer with a weapon while he was sitting in his cruiser on Hastings as he was observing the bustle of activity along the heavily tent-ridden section of city sidewalks between Gore and Carrall streets that was then home to a small but distractingly crowded “tent city.”

And on Aug. 9, there was the so-called “melee” in front of the Carnegie Community Centre involving dozens of officers. It escalated quickly, from a minor disruption by one person having a moment, and threatened to turn into a very real performance of a mad riot about to explode into the apocalypse.

Finally on Monday, Aug. 22, a man who had been bear-maced minutes before died after police shot him with a beanbag on the 300 block of East Hastings, near the headquarters of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. They shot him multiple times. In the back. He was totally unarmed. Remember Paul Boyd?

Progress. But is it enough?

Much has changed since my arrival in Vancouver.

For starters, a lot of awareness has been raised around things like harm reduction, safe drug use practices, drug testing and alerts, overdose prevention and response training, as well as the pioneering development of new paradigms and low-barrier approaches in substance-use disorder diagnosis, addictions treatment and recovery, and mental health and wellness ideology.

Vancouver, while not the only city in the country that has fought hard to educate the established order, we are the only one to have finally managed to earn an exemption from law enforcement regarding the simple possession of illegal drugs. This reduces harassment and avoids tying up valuable courtroom time and resources. Plus it helps challenge stigma against people who use drugs.

Along with some other activists and policy rabble rousers, I was part of a delegation that spoke to Vancouver’s mayor and council and was somehow convincing enough to earn a unanimous vote in favour of “decriminalization" in November 2020 — meaning the cops can’t hassle, arrest or convict people anymore for simply carrying minimal amounts of drugs. This was a big win: only a few years ago, it seemed that many police officers were too afraid (or possibly just didn’t understand) how to even administer naloxone in an alley overdose situation.

Most of this work has been headed up by “peers” — people with first-hand knowledge of these topics gained from lived experience with them in their personal lives.

And for as hard as we have worked, what do we get in return?

Daily teams of chuckling city workers backed by the VPD beat patrol doing “street sweeps” and throwing away our meagre worldly possessions, so the sensitive public doesn’t get offended by poor folks having nowhere to store their stuff.

At the same time, it’s Vancouver. It’s supposed to be a progressive city. In recent years, the VPD has taken strides to create more positive relationships in the community, which, to me, is an achievement that should be regarded with respect.

And that’s a 20-plus years street-entrenched drug user with authority avoidance issues talking to you.

But I’m also not the one having their belongings thrown in the garbage every single day.

Still, it’s our community. And should we happen across a rogue officer or operation, we have a moral obligation to address this for the collective safety of our community.

To me, it will always be about respect — and Indigenous sovereignty, of course — on both sides. So sleep tight, dear reader: your safety is in good hands.

Unless, of course, you happen to be homeless.  [Tyee]

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