British Columbia

Vancouver poverty advocates seek to halt new low-level crime police unit

Advocates for vulnerable people in Vancouver have filed a complaint to the city’s police board asking that a new policing unit aimed at responding to low-level crime and street disorder be halted.

Complaint says unit discriminates against vulnerable people in city’s downtown, criminalizes poverty

The Vancouver Police Department announced it was forming the neighbourhood response team as a result of a survey that showed a majority of respondents were worried about crime and safety in the city. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Advocates for vulnerable people in Vancouver have filed a complaint to the city's police board asking that a new unit aimed at responding to low-level crime and street disorder be halted.

The Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, Pivot Legal Society, and Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) say the Vancouver Police Department's Neighbourhood Response Team will discriminate against people struggling to survive on the streets in the city's downtown.

"The VPD has no real compassion toward people in the [Downtown Eastside]," Delilah Gregg, a member of VANDU, said in a release. "It is a waste of time and resources to be giving the residents of the [Downtown Eastside] tickets for low-priority crimes."

In the complaint to the police board, filed Monday morning, the three organizations want the VPD to halt the deployment of the neighbourhood response team and disclose more information about its creation.

It also asks the VPD to share more internal information about its budgets, policies and practices. The VPD's budget for 2020 is $340.4 million, more than one-fifth of the city's entire operating budget.

The advocates want policing in Vancouver to reflect a desire for different approaches.

"The City of Vancouver itself has called for an urgent shift from policing and criminalization, to inclusion and peer-led crisis supports," said Meenakshi Mannoe with Pivot Legal Society. 

Earlier this month, the Vancouver Police Department announced it was forming the team as a result of a survey that showed a majority of respondents were worried about crime and safety in the city.

The team's goal is to respond to public calls about disturbances, suspicious circumstances, people trespassing, and mischief. 

Deputy Chief Const. Howard Chow said at the time that officers would be responding to calls involving drug use in parks or people sleeping in doorways in trouble spots like the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown, Gastown and the Granville Entertainment District.

A collection of weapons the Vancouver Police Department says its neighbourhood response team seized in the first 11 days on the job. (Vancouver Police Department)

On Friday police released an update about the program, and said in its first 11 days officers had responded to 300 calls for service and seized 34 weapons.

A release outlined examples such as a person who was stopped for not wearing a helmet and was found to be riding a stolen bicycle.

Another call for trespassing at a fast-food restaurant resulted in the arrest of a man who had an outstanding warrant for theft under $5,000.

Another call involved the arrest of another man after he tried to snatch a purse from a woman near the Dunsmuir Viaduct.

At odds with policing goals

The complaint against the unit says that the survey police used to justify its need was flawed in that only half the people surveyed actually live in Vancouver.

It is also critical that "no peer-led, health, advocacy or social service organizations were identified as respondents," the advocates say. 

The complaint also says the unit is at odds with policing goals set out by city council, which has moved to decriminalize poverty and support community-led safety initiatives.

"Rather than engage in civic processes, the VPD has unilaterally established a neighbourhood response team, ignoring the municipal priorities outlined by Vancouver city council, as well as numerous stakeholders in the city," said the complaint.

It also said that the creation of the team "undermines" the VPD's own on approach to mental health as outlined in its Vancouver Police Mental Health Strategy, which acknowledges that addiction is primarily a health issue and not a criminal justice one.

The Vancouver Police Board is the employer and governing body of the Vancouver Police Department and provides civilian governance and oversight of policing. Mayor Kennedy Stewart is its chair.

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