VANDU: As VPD budget spirals out of control, defunding police is our community alternative to drug war

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      (Nathan Crompton submitted this commentary on behalf of VANDU.)

      Vancouver's city council will soon be asked to approve an annual budget for the Vancouver Police Department. The VPD budget has been dramatically increased in recent years and is now planned to reach $340.4 million, more than one-fifth of the city’s entire 2020 operating budget and up from $317.2 million last year. In 2008 the police budget was almost half that, at $180 million per year.

      For the past decade, city council has granted yearly budget increases to the VPD without review and without accountability. In turn, the VPD has furnished an ever growing list of reasons for year-over-year increases, despite a steady decrease in crime.

      The first big-ticket items came in the lead-up to the 2010 Olympics, when the VPD requested new funds for crowd control, antiterrorism, and counterprotest measures during the Games. The effects were felt almost immediately, with the DTES vending and jaywalking crackdown in 2008.

      Since then, a whole host of special expense items have been used to garner more funding: a $700,000 drug processing facility, a new community policing centre in Strathcona, and the list goes on. But the reality is that these smaller expenses are not the real source of the ballooning budget.

      The vast majority of funding has gone into street cops and police salaries, with a constant increase in on-the-ground officers. And it’s this change that is being most intensely felt by the community, because when dozens of extra police have more resources and more time on their hands, the inevitable result is an increase in profiling, street checks, and negative police interaction.

      Low-income, Black and Indigenous people, drug users, women, two-spirit, queer, trans, and sex workers are the first affected by the trend toward overpolicing and underprotection. It is these communities that are affected from the beginning, many of whom continue to be circulated through the prison system at an alarming rate.

      Recently, a coalition of grassroots neighbourhood groups organized an event to talk about the VPD budget and make plans for a re-energized community response. The event was organized and supported by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP), Our Homes Can't Wait Coalition, and Pivot Legal Society.  At the town hall, community members shared their stories and experiences of daily life at the hands of the VPD in Vancouver. Members talked about street checks, incarceration, and the current saga of unrelenting police pressure at Oppenheimer Park. They also called for the conscious redirection of VPD funds into essential community services and supports.

      In recent years there has been a minor but gradual shift away from traditional drug-war policing. The older drug war remains intact but is peppered with a new set of strategies and measures. But many of the new policies actually result in more of the same.

      The VPD no longer gives out as many bylaw tickets for street vending, but the result has arguably been worse: officers continue to carry out confiscations of street vendors’ belongings, and the morning street sweeps continue on the clock. The only difference is that now there is no paper trail—no bylaw ticket, no receipt of police interaction, and therefore no accumulation of police complaint evidence that was possible in 2008, when VANDU successfully pushed back against the crackdown.

      At VANDU we are constantly hearing of people whose entire life possessions have been confiscated and discarded by the police. Places like Oppenheimer Park have been ground zero for this kind of heavy-handed but routinized approach to homelessness in Vancouver. At the event last week, countless VANDU members cited the policies and practices of police, city, and parks workers at Oppenheimer over the past months. The camp remains in place today because of mutual solidarity and collective fight-back of residents, pushing for the right to life and dignity amid the worsening housing crisis.

      But this has not prevented aggressive policing at the park. VANDU member Myles Harps spoke about a morning at Oppenheimer Park during the early raids this year. Officials awakened a man who was sleeping in his tent. The man exited the tent, rubbing sleep from his eyes, asking if he could quickly use the bathroom.

      “Before he even entered the toilet,” Myles recalls, “the workers put a pitchfork through the front of his brand new tent.”

      Coun. Jean Swanson and housing activist Chrissy Brett have consistently called for more services for the homeless, even as money keeps flowing into VPD coffers year after year.
      Charlie Smith

      It was during this time that the VPD pushed several unsuccessful measures to evict the camp, including a media campaign attempting to discredit the park as “violent”. But as CCAP put it in their response at the time: “Residents of Oppenheimer Park’s tent city experience the greatest health and safety threats due to being unhoused, and external factors such as harassment by city workers and VPD, poverty and ill health.” 

      One recurring issue is the VPD’s one-foot-in one-foot-out approach to the drug war. While the department claims that arrests for petty possession have decreased, the fact is that “shakedowns” continue at an steady rate. A shakedown is when a drug user is stopped and searched and their drugs and money are confiscated. Again with no receipt or ticket.

      At the town hall, community organizer Aiyanas Ormond asked how many people have experienced a shakedown. Nearly the entire room lifted their hand.

      “This is important,” Ormond suggested, “because if you ask this question in any other neighborhood people would not get it. People don’t realize this is happening.” 

      There are faint signs in policy and even policing circles that the war on drugs has failed, and that the incarceration state has been unsuccessful in its aims. There is a half-hearted recognition that mass incarceration only serves to entrench cycles of poverty and dispossession while doing nothing to reduce the harms of crimes. But the reality is that the prison system continues to expand, and expanding police departments are an essential component of the overall functioning of the carceral state.

      As Herb Varley pointed out at the town hall, policing in Vancouver is not just about excessive budgets but is rooted in deeper structures of colonial disposession and everyday governance of the land. The policing of low-income and Indigenous areas of the city is today a historic extension of the original mounted police and other militias who paved the way for white settlement.

      In terms of the ongoing war on drugs, we have to ask hard questions about what today’s new waves of police officers are doing with their extra time and resources. As recently documented on a Crackdown podcast, the VPD continues to conduct regular visits to safe injection sites in the DTES. These visits have had a chilling effect in the community and in some cases have pushed drug users away from life-saving harm-reduction facilities.

      The sobering fact is that the conjoined social crises of neoliberalism, capitalism, and colonialism are only deepening as we enter a new decade. In this context, police officers are now increasingly adapting their practices and their discourses to the new reality as a means to continue to secure increased funding. This includes a strategy of positioning police officers as social workers.

      Charlie Smith

      Partly as a genuine response to the crisis, and partly as a cynical ploy to receive more funding, the VPD is now on the front lines of what should be a public health response. Valuable funding and resources are now being redirected to the police, including public health funding itself. The municipal fentanyl tax was also earmarked to help the community fight the overdose crisis but is being channelled into VPD coffers.

      Today’s social crisis is also a mental health crisis. With each forced eviction, with each year of entrenched homelessness, rock-bottom welfare rates, and continued social dislocation caused by colonialism—including family separation—the mental health crisis deepens. At a time when housing stability and community economic supports are most needed, only police departments have seen the dollars. Not surprisingly, VPD officers are now a common feature of many of the mental health ACT teams. This new frontier of militarized community services needs to be rejected and discarded.

      We know that our community does not need more policing. We also know that millions of dollars are being funnelled into the failed war on drugs. As the police budget continues to expand, VPD officers in the DTES have more time and resources than ever, resulting in increased racial profiling, arbitrary police checks, property confiscations, and excessive bylaw ticketing. Only by highlighting these deep and systemic injustices can we begin to build a mass movement for change, because lavish funding for criminalization means austerity for the rest of us.