By Meagan Katsiris
I’ve spent the past seven years in the Downtown Eastside as a frontline worker, mostly at Insite, North America’s first supervised injection site. I’m now part of the management team of the Overdose Prevention Society, alongside Sarah Blyth and Ronald Grigg.
OPS is a small nonprofit that runs an indoor supervised injection site and an outdoor safe inhalation site. It was founded by Sarah in response to the fentanyl crisis in 2016. We represent hundreds of overdoses reversed and employ community members (many of whom are actively using drugs). From December 25, 2016, to October 9, 2017, there were 255 overdoses at OPS, none of which were fatal.*
Part of our job as frontline workers is to maintain good relations with the Vancouver Police Department. We know many of the police down here on a first-name basis and work alongside them regularly. We treat police with respect, and this is returned to us. In most cases.
One of the most difficult things to witness is police abusing their power and treating marginalized people in the Downtown Eastside with disrespect. An important aspect of our job is to advocate for our clients and community. We do our best every day to let folks know we will fight for them.
Recently, two police officers (who have been named on social media) have been working the zero block of East Hastings Street and have been treating people poorly. I myself have witnessed these cops bullying and harassing homeless people, seizing their sleeping bags, and talking down to drug users, many of whom are First Nations. We have advocated for these individuals when we witness this behaviour from police. We make our presence known, ask questions when we witness something that seems unfair, and film police when they are doing anything that seems excessive or abusive.
It’s unfortunate that we need to police the police when we witness this kind of behaviour. When a person in a position of power (like a VPD officer) is harming somebody, we must let them know that we refuse to sit by and watch that happen. We have the right (and, I would argue, an obligation) to stand up for our community members—who are so often silenced by society—and to use our privilege for advocacy and activism.
What I ask is that police in the Downtown Eastside have proper training, including training in providing trauma-informed care. It is absolutely vital for cops working this neighbourhood to have an extensive understanding of the genocide of Indigenous peoples, the effect of childhood trauma and PTSD, basic harm-reduction knowledge, and how mental health and poverty affect our most vulnerable population.
It’s the very least we can do for those whose daily lives are so immensely difficult.
*Statistics from dataforgood report for OPS.