05 February 2018 0 Comments Posted By : Nick Eagland

Advocates fear Downtown Eastside police crackdown pushes drug users into shadows

While Vancouver police proclaim victory in a recent crackdown on crime in the Downtown Eastside, some locals fear the boost in beat cops is pushing people who use drugs into harm’s way.

Last week, Vancouver police increased foot patrols in the impoverished neighbourhood to address “street disorder” and prevent violence. Police said the sweeps came in response to a surge in complaints from residents, business owners and visitors. As well, people with mobility issues and the elderly have complained about blocked sidewalks and doorways.

But drug users and groups representing the marginalized believe the bolstered police presence has deterred people from using overdose-prevention services during the fentanyl-related overdose crisis. Last week, the B.C. Coroners Service announced that 1,422 people had died of a suspected overdose in 2017, up 43 per cent from 2016. Fentanyl was detected in 81 per cent of cases and 88 per cent of deaths were indoors.

“I feel that (the police will) find a way to incriminate you, if they can, because they want to meet their quota,” said Larissa, who visited the Overdose Prevention Society at 58 East Hastings St. on Saturday.

Larissa, who asked that her last name not be printed, said people who use drugs can feel dehumanized by police, and uniformed officers standing outside an injection site will make them feel unwelcome. She worries her friends may instead use alone, use dirty needles or get robbed while hiding in alleyways.

“I think that it will make a lot of people stop coming,” she said. “They could just be out in the alley, dropping.” 

Joy, an Overdose Prevention Society volunteer in recovery, who also asked that her last name not be printed, said there’s been a marked decrease in visits since the police crackdown.

She said most visitors know police “are here to do their job” but at the same time worry they may get nabbed for possession. When police round the corner to the alleyway behind the OPS, drug users shout “Six up!” and scatter into the shadows, she said.

“They just want to be somewhere where it’s comfortable,” she said. “As long as the police aren’t harassing them, nobody really says much of anything.”

Deputy Chief Howard Chow said the increased police activity in the Downtown Eastside will continue. But Chow said beat officers remain focused on “predators that exploit drug addicts.” He said police policy is to crack down on organized crime, not pick up people with addictions on minor possession charges.

“The reality of it is that police officers and beat officers have been part of that landscape, part of the community, for decades,” Chow said. “Our members are regularly guiding, directing – even assisting and bringing – those that are drug addicts to those overdose (prevention) sites. Our members are working tirelessly on the frontline.”

With an average of one person dying of an overdose in Vancouver each day of 2017, officers will continue to administer naloxone and pull drug use “out of the laneways,” Chow said. “We don’t want people to be using in laneways where all of a sudden people may have a crisis or overdose, and nobody knows it.”

Chow said the sweeps have been effective. Last week was only the second week in the past six years during which there wasn’t a single street-level assault or robbery. Police have confiscated knives, a hatchet and an imitation handgun during searches. They’ve seized drugs cut with fentanyl as well as stolen property.

Chow said feedback to police from drugs users and other community members has been overwhelmingly positive.

Dean Wilson, peer engagement lead with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, said police crackdowns have always been disruptive. And he believes the current campaign is doing little more than driving people away from lifesaving health services.

“The problem is, the only people they seem to arrest are the people for possession or some street-entrenched seller of drugs that’s just literally holding for the other guy,” Wilson said. “As far as the violent people they’re supposedly going after right now? I don’t see any of those arrests.”

After a night in jail and with their tolerance way down, an addicted drug user returns to Hastings Street at a much higher risk of overdose, Wilson said.

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