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Downtown Eastside crackdown misguided, groups say

Police increase tickets, street checks

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER — If Doug Everitt lived anywhere besides the Downtown Eastside, he doubts he'd be getting the kinds of tickets from police he does.

The 50-year-old construction worker has had five in the past few months, some for riding his bike without a helmet, some for jaywalking on the streets near the residential hotel where he's been living.

"I just feel like I get targeted because it's something they can hold over my head so they can get me off the street when they need to, like the Olympics," said Mr. Everitt, who has had his struggles with drugs and is now on methadone. "And it's gotten a lot more aggressive lately."

What he's noticing is the effects of the Vancouver Police Department's new 2009 business plan, which set new targets for ticketing and street checks in the Downtown Eastside to maintain public order.

The neighbourhood, home to a high concentration of poor, mentally ill and drug-addicted residents, is infamous for its pockets of chaos, with crowds of people selling random articles on the sidewalk or gathering in alleys to buy and sell drugs.

The police plan, which was initiated in December but made public two weeks ago, is coming under fire from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and AIDS groups for the way it targets people like Mr. Everitt because they live in a particular neighbourhood.

They say the crackdown, which envisions banning people from the neighbourhood if they accumulate enough tickets, actually endangers people's health, since it prevents the drug-addicted and marginalized from accessing the numerous services in the Downtown Eastside aimed specifically at their problems.

The groups sent a public letter to Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu objecting to the new plan, which set a goal of issuing 20 per cent more tickets for bylaw offences, 10 per cent more tickets under the provincial Safe Streets Act, and requiring any beat officers to do at least four random "street checks" per block every day.

"This doesn't solve any of the underlying issues," said David Eby, a lawyer with the civil liberties association.

His association's letter, which was also signed by six AIDS organizations, noted that "bylaw offences identified for targeting by the Vancouver police appear to be those most closely associated with dire poverty, including sleeping outside and street vending."

The police crackdown is also prompting concern from other social-service agencies in the area.

Mark Townsend, who runs a non-profit that operates a number of residential hotels for people who have psychiatric or addiction problems, said many of their residents are getting ticketed. One resident, who is mentally ill, is now afraid to go outside for fear of being arrested.

Mr. Eby noted that a scientific study on the effects of a previous crackdown, called Operation Torpedo, showed that more aggressive policing succeeded mainly in spreading drug and public-disorder problems to Commercial Drive, Broadway and the West End.

Operation Torpedo started in 2003 and tapered off about a year later. It increased the numbers of beat police and even saw officers on horseback going through the neighbourhood.

The police chief at the time, Jamie Graham, said the department was moving to more aggressive policing to create some order in the neighbourhood and make it more livable for residents intimidated by the level of drug-dealing and general mayhem.

But critics say that approach doesn't really get rid of anything.

"Yes, the Downtown Eastside is chaotic but just because the chaos is spread out over a larger area doesn't solve the problem," Mr. Eby said.

Vancouver city Councillor George Chow said his Vision party, which dominates council, hasn't formalized a specific response to the police plan. But he did note that he and his colleagues are pushing for other measures to try to control street disorder in the Downtown Eastside, like finding indoor places for dumpster divers to refurbish or sell what they have collected.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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