Police chief worries supervised injection site will be a draw for dealers

Hamilton Police Chief Eric Girt says the service supports harm reduction, but that doesn't mean they're going to let illegal drug dealers who may take advantage of the city's new overdose prevention site to go unchecked.

Advocates want a hands-off approach from police, but Chief Eric Girt says that only goes so far

Chief Eric Girt says the service supports harm reduction through an overdose prevention site. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Advocates say for Hamilton's overdose prevention site to work, police need to stay away, but the city's chief says there's only so much space the service is prepared to give.

Eric Girt draws the line at drug dealing.

"If we have drug dealers peddling potentially deadly chemicals I think we have a responsibility to look into that," the chief told CBC News. "If you were to say we're just going to step back and let it happen, I think that's irresponsible."

Girt's comments put into focus one of the key issues with the site: How will police approach enforcement around what is a high-profile step forward in the city's harm reduction approach to drug use.

Nick Boyce, who spent time volunteering with overdose prevention sites in Toronto and is the director of the Ontario HIV and Substance Use Training Program, says a low-key approach by police is critical for clients to build trust with staff at an OPS site.

"A key is having an understanding police force who take a step back and allow this work to happen," he added. "Police can't park down the street. That would really detract from it."

A good relationship with police is important in case things get violent, but that doesn't mean they should be around all of the time, said Boyce.

'Supply and demand' attracts dealers

The province announced earlier this week that it had approved the temporary location run by the Shelter Health Network in partnership with Hamilton Urban Core CHC at the inner city health centre's 71 Rebecca St. location.

Kits filled with equipment are laid out for people using injection drugs at the Temporary Overdose Prevention Site in London. (Amanda Margison, CBC News)

Girt said Hamilton police have been an active member of the city's opiod roundtable since the beginning, supports the idea of harm reduction and will work with other agencies to ensure the site can accomplish what it's meant to.

"It's all about wellness, but wellness has more dimensions than just one," he said.

He said the service's concerns come from what officers saw during a fact-finding visit to a supervised injection site in Vancouver.

"First, the degradation of the communities," he said. "Second, in some cases, it's the abdication of any enforcement around drug dealers."

The chief said dealers were attracted to the sites because of "supply and demand."

"The suppliers are going to go where people are buying."

Communication with clients is key

The threat of dealers trying to cash in is something Sonja Burke and the team at the three-month-old OPS in London are well aware of.

Burke, who is the director of counterpoint harm reduction services with the area's regional HIV/AIDS connection, said the key to taking on that issue is all about being proactive with the clients about what they are risking.

"A critical piece for us is engaging the people who access our services to understand what's critical to make this service work," she said. "They understand that buying and selling substance in and around the facility will cause them or other individuals to be arrested."

Police aren't an uncommon sight around London's OPS. Burke said foot patrols still walk past and officers often park their cruisers in the lot next to it.

Staff running the site have a good relationship with police and make sure to clearly communicate why their presence could be an issue, she said.

One of the waiting areas inside London's site. Clients need to sign in to use the service. (Amanda Margison, CBC News)

"We'll go out and we'll just let the officer know that can be concerning for clients. Ninety per cent of the time the officer will say 'Oh I didn't even realize you were here' and then they turn the cruiser around or move it to the other end of the parking lot."

Inviting officers in

That communication has been key to the success of the OPS. Burke said they will often invite officers in to see what's going on and to explain the work that they do. The site has multiple entrances and exits, so any clients who don't feel comfortable around the uniforms are able to leave.

On the police's side, Burke said the service tries not to arrest anyone at the site, unless it's an emergency. Officers also don't use the OPS as a place to find people they're searching for.

 'If you're looking at the police to come up with the solution, that's the wrong approach.'- Eric Girt, Hamilton Police Chief 

"There are lots of other places they can find someone," she explained. "Police recognize and support the healthcare service.

The province has granted Hamilton's OPS site enough funding for up to six months, with the possibility of an extension in the future.

Preliminary data from the health network shows there were 75 opioid-related deaths in Hamilton from January to October of 2017, compared to 41 over the same time period the year before.

-with files from Adam Carter