Police officer Wes Fung spurs debate over Downtown Eastside addicts’ civil liberties
A cop for 27 years, Wes Fung has seen a lot of things. But there’s one incident that he distinctly recalls. It concerns a young man in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He lost his battle against addiction and mental illness.
He hanged himself.
“I remember we cut him down, and as I was helping bring his body down, it felt hard, cold—like a piece of wood,” Fung told the Georgia Straight. “I’m thinking, ‘My daughters aren’t much younger than this boy here.’ ”
Fung said it was this man’s despair that partly explains why he’s now talking publicly about his thoughts regarding the neighbourhood, like his idea of forcing addicts to get treatment.
Fung is the Vancouver Police Department’s liaison officer in Chinatown and Gastown, a post he has held since 2009. Inside his office at a community policing centre on Keefer Street, the 50-year-old constable vented his frustration over the “hypocrisy” about the Downtown Eastside.
“For mainstream society, as long as the ‘garbage’ is centralized down here, not in my back yard, not in Kits, not in Shaughnessy, or wherever else, no one cares,” the Vancouver-born police officer said. “So there’s no will to really do what it takes to actually solve the problems down here.”
He suggested that the province should amend its Mental Health Act to allow police to apprehend drug users deemed a threat to themselves and others. They could then be taken to rehabilitation centres and also provided with after-treatment supports such as transition housing and counselling programs.
“People say that unless someone wants to get clean, you can’t force them,” Fung said. “We try to apply logic to an illogical act. Anybody who is of a sane mind, would they want to be addicted? No! Even the addicted don’t want to be addicted. These people, they’re so obsessed at trying to chase after the next fix. Common sense doesn’t apply. So sometimes the government has to step in as the big brother to force treatment on them.”
He’s not a fan of harm reduction, which involves practices like giving out clean needles and crack pipes.
“I call it harm reproduction,” Fung said. “I understand the rationale of harm reduction, because on a short-term basis, you know, you want to stop the spread of disease and stop people from overdosing on drugs. But, unfortunately, all you’re doing is enabling the status quo…You’re only prolonging the misery.”
Vancouver city councillor Kerry Jang understands where Fung is coming from.
“The whole point is getting them [addicts] to somebody who can do something, whether you commit them or send them to a place where they can be properly triaged,” Jang, a UBC professor of psychiatry, told the Straight in a phone interview.
That’s why the VPD has been calling for an urgent-response centre where officers can drop off people with addictions and mental-health issues, according to Jang. He noted that health authorities and many nonprofits support this measure.
He acknowledged that forced treatment will invite questions about civil liberties. “However, again, it’s a definition of addiction,” Jang said. “Are they [addicts] able to make a judgment?”
Dr. Evan Wood is an expert on issues related to addiction. He’s a principal investigator with the Urban Health Research Initiative, a program of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
“I wholeheartedly agree we need to dramatically expand access to addiction treatment,” Wood told the Straight in a phone interview. “But we clearly need to ensure we are investing limited tax dollars into evidence-based interventions rather than approaches that are proven ineffective and increasingly being condemned by international bodies.”
Wood was referring to a joint statement made by 12 United Nations entities in March against compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation. “The deprivation of liberty without due process is an unacceptable violation of internationally recognised human-rights standards,” the statement reads in part.
Downtown Eastside activist Ann Livingston doesn’t buy Fung’s idea. The long-time volunteer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users noted that there aren’t sufficient spaces for people who want to go in for treatment in the first place.
“If the only way you can get to treatment is to get arrested because there simply isn’t enough voluntary treatment anyway, that is bizarre,” Livingston told the Straight by phone.
Fung admitted that some people might be offended by his ideas, but he said his goal is to provoke a discussion.
He even suggested that society is “complicit” about the cycle of addiction in the Downtown Eastside. “We have a guilty conscience,” he said. “Why do you think so many people come down here during Christmas to give out sandwiches to all the poor homeless? They’re not making their lives any better, but they’re making themselves feel better. So who are you helping? You or them?”