What’s wrong with this picture?
Two professionals meet at a street corner in downtown Victoria. They set their laptop cases down and stop to talk to each other. One of them leans against the wall of a building. Suddenly two police officers arrive and start yelling obscenities at them. They point out a “no loitering” sign in the window of a nearby restaurant and, while one officer demands identification and issues trespassing tickets, the other confiscates their laptops as abandoned property and throws them in the trunk of a police cruiser.
Does that sound familiar? Of course not. This type of thing would never happen to people who look like property owners or consumers. If you read that paragraph again and change the subjects from professionals to homeless people, it makes much more sense.
Scenarios like this one are a common experience for people in Victoria’s street community.
A recent study from the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG) found that social profiling by Victoria police is resulting in disproportionate levels of ticketing and frequent police harassment of people who have experienced homelessness in the past two years. The study also found that police are consistently violating their own code of conduct during these interactions.
Last fall over 100 members of the street community in Victoria were interviewed by VIPIRG researchers. Ninety-one percent of respondents had been approached by police at least once in the past year. Fifty-two percent reported having personal belongings such as photos, sleeping bags, money, and identification cards seized. Sixty-five percent perceived themselves as being treated unfairly or unequally by police for being street-involved, poor, homeless, or using drugs.
Participants in the study also report frequent violations of the B.C. Police Act code. Seventy-eight percent spoke of seeing police search and arrest without sufficient cause, Eighty-six percent report witnessing incidents of unnecessary force and eighty-three percent witnessed police acting rude, uncivil, or using abusive language.
While there is no excuse for such blatant discrimination, it should be acknowledged that police are being placed in an impossible situation by the City of Victoria. Senior officers have repeatedly admitted that their troops are not adequately trained to deal with disability and addiction issues endemic to the street community. Despite this, Victoria’s mayor and council consistently chose to put police on the front lines of the city’s homelessness crisis.
The city spent years in court fighting to outlaw camping in public spaces and, having lost (twice), their fall-back position is to have armed police officers patrol tent villages every morning and force people to take their tents down at 7 a.m. Council passed the infamous “chattel” bylaw in 1997 which instructs police to confiscate personal belongings placed on the ground in a public space. Last fall, Victoria council approved a motion prohibiting anyone from squatting, kneeling, sitting, or lying down on a boulevard in front of a popular street outreach center.
This tactic of policing poverty that the police themselves identify as ineffective is a prime example of financial mismanagement. Officers spend disproportionate amounts of time patrolling areas frequented by the street community to hand out fines for noncriminal offences and the staffing costs alone are enormous. On top of this, service providers insist that criminalizing and harassing people who struggle with mental health and addiction issues amplifies problems associated with homelessness and costs even more money in health care, prisons, and other expensive social services.
The saying goes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but what if the cure being prescribed doesn’t even work? The City of Victoria’s decision to confront poverty with social profiling and violence is a costly mistake that is making B.C.’s capital city an unsafe place for people who already live on the margins of our society. On February 16, VIPIRG will be launching a campaign to end social profiling and make the City of Victoria a safer place for everyone.
Gordon O’Connor is a community organizer in Coast Salish Territories (Victoria) and member of the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group coordinating committee. For more information, visit www.vipirg.ca.