By Jeff Shantz
The new year brings hope for many. Hope for better opportunities, for better days ahead, for better lives. Especially after the gruelling circumstances of 2020. Sadly, in Vancouver, 2021 began much the way 2020 ended: with a death at the hands of VPD officers. Possibilities for new beginnings and better lives ended in violence.
A man in distress died when VPD officers attempted to remove him from a downtown coffee shop on the evening of November 26, 2020. Vancouver police said they attended the Tim Hortons at Terminal Avenue near Main Street after 6 p.m. regarding a man who had allegedly been inside the bathroom for half an hour as staff attempted to close the dining area. At some point after he left the bathroom, police engaged in a “physical altercation” with the man, who then went into “medical distress” and died at the scene. It is reported that police observed the man to be agitated before they became physical with him.
In the early morning of January 5, 2021, VPD officers shot and killed a 37-year-old man outside Grace Mansion in the Downtown Eastside. It was reported that the victim was in distress and paramedics were called to the building at Princess Avenue and Hastings Street just before 5 a.m. They then called police regarding a man acting “erratic and aggressive”.
Video since released makes clear that the person was certainly in distress. He is naked, bleeding, roaming back and forth along the street, crashing into a glass door. Carrying something over his shoulder (some say a sword; it looks like a moulding), the man is shot multiple times by VPD officers, including one after he was obviously stricken. The video shows that not only was the man several metres away from the officers but that they appeared to have ample room to evade the man and retreat safely.
Many, including witnesses to the shooting, have asked why police chose to shoot so quickly in such a context. Christopher Campbell, who lives across the street at Union Gospel Mission, witnessed the shooting and described the awful scene to CBC News:
“[The] female officer ended up bucking off like four shots, and another male officer on his left-hand side ended up shooting him again and that's when the gentleman ended up falling down.” According to Campbell, “I figured it could have been a little less lethal, to be honest.”
In both the November 2020 and January 2021 cases, police action against someone in distress ended with that person being dead. As many in defund-police movements have said during the past year, policing is not about health and wellness. Indeed, as the CBC News Deadly Force project documents, of 461 police-involved deaths between 2000 and 2017, 70 percent of victims were experiencing mental-health distress.
Only days before the January 5 killing, another person was shot by VPD officers, also along Princess Avenue. On the evening of January 2, a heavily armed police deployment surrounded Princess Rooms at the corner of Princess Avenue and Powell Street in what was described as a “standoff”. A 32-year-old was shot upon leaving the building and taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.
Community care, not cops
For advocates in the community, the police resorting to lethal force is painfully familiar. The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) released a statement that addressed the violence that poor people and drug users regularly experience at the hands of police:
“We at VANDU know why they shot to kill. The VPD patrols the DTES like guards in an open-air prison, with every unhoused and poor resident a potential enemy to be contained or eliminated…The police claim to be the only legitimate force that can protect us and respond to crisis. We call bullshit. In the name of protecting property and profit, our lives as drug users are made expendable by the VPD. The police are the crisis in the DTES.”
The Defund 604 Network, a new group organizing broadly against the violence of policing in Vancouver, released a statement condemning the killing and calling for a shift of public funding and resources away from policing and toward real community-based supports, including supports for health care. They have also spoken out for the decriminalization of drug use and survival strategies of poor people. The statement emphasized the deadly connections between policing and mental-health distress, as in the November 2020 and January 2021 deaths:
“We are deeply concerned about the intersection between poor mental health care crisis services and police violence…Police should not be de-facto first responders for mental health crises and policing must be disentangled from mental health care.”
An advocate in the Downtown Eastside with whom I spoke right after the shooting said the overwhelming feeling in the community was outright fear. Fear of the police. Questions were being asked with no clear answers.
Hope for 2021: real accountability?
It has been well documented that police-oversight bodies—often staffed by former officers and/or relying on active police for investigations—do not hold police accountable. A review by Canadian Press of all police watchdog agencies across Canada in 2018 and 2019 found that charges against officers were laid or forwarded to Crown prosecutors for consideration in only three to nine percent of cases. Accountability, if it is possible at all, will come from communities and groups like VANDU and Defund 604.
Police-involved deaths in Canada have generally received much less attention than police killings in the United States. There, officers are often quickly identified and named publicly. In Canada, there are no formal systematic means even of documenting and reporting police killings publicly.
Yet if anything is to be different in 2021 compared with 2020, it might be this. The movements for Black lives and against police violence and systemic racism, as well as uprisings following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, have sparked important mobilizations calling to defund and/or abolish police. This includes significant organizing in Vancouver.
In 2021, we can now, finally, expect that police killings will receive the public outcry they deserve in Canada. Communities are responding collectively. May families and friends of victims no longer have to bear this pain alone (though, of course, they bear it uniquely and personally).
A community vigil was held on January 12, with people gathering at the VANDU office at 380 East Hastings Street.