Police brawn over brain is eerily familiar

A few years back, Vancouver’s Downtown East Side was surprised to discover it had a problem.

A few years back, Vancouver’s Downtown East Side was surprised to discover it had a problem. This problem — dubbed Street Disorder — was new to an area familiar with life’s underbelly, but for the Vancouver Police Department the existing drug abuse, crimes of poverty, and health concerns were nothing compared to this new threat.

“Street disorder of course was a euphemism for visible poverty,” recalls B.C. Civil Liberties Association executive director David Eby. The poverty of the DTES was fine when it was hidden in alleyways and behind closed doors, but as undesirables overflowed into the public sphere, something had to be done.

“I think there is a reality among police forces that the way in which the force deals with marginalized populations is dictated by the police chief,” says Eby. Faced with the spectre of Street Disorder, the VPD and its chief — then Victoria’s own Jamie Graham — made the choice to embrace enforcement as the answer to poverty with a series of initiatives which collectively made the DTES one of the most heavily policed areas in the province.

“The effect of this policing was to displace all of the issues of the DTES across the neighbourhoods of Vancouver,” says Eby. “It was a massive disaster.”

The other effect of the VPD’s aggressive policing methods was to act as a catalyst for grassroots police oversight in Vancouver, with organizations like the Pivot Legal Society and Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users leading the charge against the VPD’s harassment of the street community.

Vancouver is beginning to heal, but the drama that unfolded there under Chief Graham’s command a decade ago is now being replayed on our streets.

“The parallels are eerie,” says Eby, only weeks after a trip to The Capital. Over-policing of Victoria’s poorest residents as outlined in this year’s Out Of Sight report and the subsequent backlash of local anti-poverty activists are the logical outcome of VicPD’s brawn-over-brain approach to poverty on our streets.

There’s an old saying — those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We can forgive ourselves for not always remembering the history of centuries past, but when the history of only a decade ago comes back to bite us in the ass, who else do we have to blame? M

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