Gordon O’Connor: Police tactics making Victoria unsafe for homeless people

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.

Comments (13) Add New Comment
Bruce Dean
The core of the policing problem is Chief Jamie Graham. He has been proven to not cooperate with investigations into police misconduct.

Under Chief Jamie Graham's Command:

Victoria, BC is now ranked the second most dangerous city in Canada
The VicPD is the most costly police department in British Columbia
The VicPD's crime-solving rate is one of the worst in all of Canada
The VicPD's officer response times have consistently worsened
Jamie Graham has been found guilty of discreditable conduct, again...

The VicPD operate beyond accountability, having proven that they are able to confiscate cameras without warrant and destroy evidence.

Chief Jamie will do NOTHING to hold his officers accountable for offences such as beating people in custody and restrained.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/brucedean/6798652703/in/photostream
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Johnny Canuck
Victoria's violent crime ranking in 2009 (Graham only arrived at VictoriaPD in December 2008) was already 10th highest in Canada based on previous years data and its climb to #2 has much less to do with Graham than it does with the kinds and volume of criminals who show up in City of Victoria. Streetpeople are subject to the same laws as anybody else and VicPD are only enforcing the laws. If you don't like the laws, persuade Canadians to vote for politicians who will change them. Otherwise, the laws are there and being enforced by police who are often treated with complete disrespect and violence by some of these people. Victoria council is full of left-wing activists, so whatever they voted for that you don't like - take it up with them. Police are paid to enforce laws and bylaws. Don't dignify the VIPIRG drivel by calling it a report - call it propaganda.
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D S
It's a shame that Victoria police can't use the old ways to clean up the city streets.
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Bruce Dean
...so, even with Johnny's "numbers", it is clear that Victoria has got worse since Jamie Graham started spending our money and letting his cops run HOG wild.

Street people are subject to the same laws, but not the same levels of enforcement. The street community is harassed by the cops on a daily and hourly basis, further wasting tax dollars, solving nothing. That's why the VicPD has one of the worst crime solving rates of all police departments in all of Canada. The VicPD can't get much worse.
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R U Kiddingme
Er...isn't the notion that a homeless person is more likely than a professional to be ticketed for loitering kind of...obvious
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BC Criminal Liberties Assn
Laws should not apply to street people. Everyone of them has a heart of gold. We should give them more.
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Ray I
Being homeless and not in any way breaking the law or harming others is fine. My gut tells me we are dealing with hard drug dealers and users and not just homeless people. If they are committing crimes then the police have every right to harass them and keep them out of the areas where they prey. And if you don't think the same thing happens to non-homeless try pulling their kinda shit (stealing, selling and using dope) in a casino, bar, restaurant or school-yard and see what happens.
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lozl
Chief Jamie Graham was run out of Vancouver in complete disgrace and now the elderly fools in Victoria chose him as their saviour to run a Guilliani style campaign of intimdation against all undesireables to 'clean up' the community. This is the result.

Just means Victoria will be tied up in court cases as police continue to harass and ignore real crimes. Eventually Graham will be run out of there too then go surface in Ontario or something, selling the same nonsense to more fools.
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R U Kiddingme
@lozi

What's a real crime, though? Guliani's theory was that ignoring small, irritant but highly visible minor criminality (e.g. graffiti) foments an anything-goes mentality in the neighbourhood whereas a tidy appearance in the streets creates a civic pride mentality which in the long run is much more crime-resistant. Crime rates dropped under Guiliani's administration so there is some reason to think that his perspective is valid.
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Ray I
@ lozl - aren't selling and using (in public) hard drugs "real crimes"? What about the cars that are broken into and robbed? What about the small business people whose livelihood is threatened because these losers scare away customers from their stores? Drop them off in Sooke with no shoes and no money!
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bobo
Maybe their tactics are making Victoria safe for law abiding citizens.
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morgus
"Senior officers have repeatedly admitted that their troops are not adequately trained to deal with disability and addiction issues endemic to the street community. "

As well as not caring and lacking the personality traits to do so.
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R U Kiddingme
@morgus

Is that fair? The cops not social workers. No one cavils that social workers are not adequately trained to deal with street issues endemic to the addicted community. They are separate jobs.

If you want law enforcement and comprehensive justice in a single individual, you are thinking of Judge Dredd. Otherwise it is just piecemeal work, alas.
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