And the beat goes on…

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of taking a young Langara College photo-journalism student on a ride-a-long to help him complete an assignment about the Downtown Eastside.

We’d barely finished introducing ourselves when we were dispatched to our first call — a suicidal senior who phoned the crisis line to say he was depressed and was thinking about hurting himself.  We intervened before he could do so, and took him by ambulance to Vancouver General.

Under the Mental Health Act, police can apprehend anyone who appears to be suffering from a mental illness if we think the person is likely to hurt himself or someone else. It’s then our responsibility to wait at the hospital until that patient is seen by a doctor. Sometimes that takes minutes. Sometimes it takes hours.

On this day, we were in for an unusually long wait, but it gave the budding journalist an opportunity to pepper me with questions. He wanted to know if I ever get frustrated with having to wear so many hats — police officer, social worker, psychiatrist, counsellor.

I explained that our role as police is not just putting handcuffs on people and throwing them in jail.  We are de-facto psychiatrists. We are front-line social workers. We are there to protect society from criminals and predators, and we are there to help people who fall through the cracks.

It’s a role we all accept.

And while it’s often frustrating to watch people with mental illness get let down by the system, and to witness what sometimes seems like a revolving door at the courthouse, few things are quite as maddening as the apathy and acceptance people in the Downtown Eastside have toward crime. I’ve never seen a place that works so hard to protect predators, bullies and cheats.

Case in point, a man who approached me on the street not long after my ride-along went home. He is a so-called harm reductionist who works at Insite, the supervised injection facility where addicts can legally inject intraveinous drugs.

Our conversation went something like this:

Harm reductionist: “I see you guys out here writing tickets to people for jay-walking and for selling stuff on the street, but why don’t you arrest all those drug dealers in front of the bottle depot?”

Steve: “Well, it’s not that easy. It takes two minutes to write a ticket for jaywalking, and several hours to arrest just one drug dealer. There’s only seven beat cops on the street today. Two of them are already at the hospital. Two others are in court. We just don’t have the manpower.”

Harm reductionist: “But there’s this one guy…he’s not even a user. He forces these poor addicts to sell his drugs. He’s abusive towards them. He’s violent. And this guy’s really sloppy. I bet if you watched him for a little bit you’d be able to arrest him.”

Steve: “Okay. Where is he and what does he look like? I’ll go get him.”

Harm reductionist: “Oh no. I don’t want to get involved in this.”

Steve: “But don’t you want this guy off the street?”

Harm reductionist: “Sure. But I don’t share information with the police. Go find him yourself.”

With that, he turned and walked away. The predator continued to prey.

And for me, the beat went on.

I’d like to think this encounter was a one-off. Sadly it wasn’t.

Too many times I’ve responded to a domestic assault where the victim claims she fell down. Too many times I’ve found a stabbing victim surrounded by a crowd of witnesses who claim they saw nothing. And too many times I’ve been snookered at the door of a shelter, a needle exchange or a supervised injection site by a staff member who claims my presence makes their “clients” feel uncomfortable.

I’ve never seen so many people who simply accept their role as victims. And I’ve never come across so many people who are willing to just turn, walk away and allow people to be preyed upon. It’s shameful.

People often ask me if I think the Downtown Eastside will ever be cleaned up. The question sparks the inevitable conversation about harm reduction, social housing and drug treatment centres.

I figure you can hand out a million needles. You can give away a thousand homes. You can build a hundred addiction centres. But until the people in this community — that includes the ones who staff the shelters, needle drops and injection site — put an end to this cone of silence, I have little hope that anything will change for the better.

Sadly, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. And that’s what frustrates me the most.

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21 Responses to And the beat goes on…

  1. L. Lloyd says:

    It’s amazing to me how quickly people are willing to hand over their power to the criminal element. If good people stand up, it’s like shining a light down a dark alley. The rats will scurry off. When we fail to be part of the solution, we become part of the problem. I wonder if that guy ever thought about that?

  2. sandra gagnon says:

    I’d like to thank The Vancouver Police for being there for me when I needed to talk.
    My sister: Janet Henry is one of the missing from the downtown eastside.
    Every detective I got to know were very encouraging. They listened to me when I felt I could’nt handle it. They listened to me when I lost my son. There were times that I felt like I did’nt want to live anymore. It took it’s tole on me. And the police who came over to talk to me were sincere caring, and sympathetic. I will be forever greatful. There’s only one police officer I don’t care for and he’s the one that said the missing women could’nt get dates anyway. But besides that every one on the task force ect got to know me. I got to know them as friends. Thank you

  3. DTES Vet says:

    I am sorry to hear the above “harm reductionist” was so unhelpful, but I do hope you don’t paint us all with the same brush?
    As I am sure you will agree there are good and bad in all professions and unfortunately it is always the bad that are remembered.

  4. Sparky says:

    Not to be cynical, but that harm reductionist (interesting job description) and many many others in the DES have a vested interest in the dreary situation continuing as is.

    • DTES Vet says:

      Honestly Sparky, do you think grassing on one dealer is going to change the way Hastings has been for a 100yrs. And what would that vested interest be?
      Watching people die a slow painful death of starvation, illness, addiction or a fast quick death of being pushed out a window or in front of a moving car?

      • DAK says:

        Yes DTES Vet there is a vested interest…the “addict industry”. There is a lot of money, last estimate I heard was $1 million / day, that is spent on various social services in the DTES. There are many non-addicts out there with minimal job skills who are making a decent wage by doing what? …handing out needles, checking people into Insite and providing “support”. I would be interested to see what marketable skills (aside from a Philosophy degree) do these people have in the real world?

        • DTES Vet says:

          I would then challenge you to “give support” using your minimal skill for a couple of days and then you can tell me what it is like? First most front line workers don’t make a decent wage, they make a barley livable wage at the same time as carrying the stresses of caring for the people they work with. Second, if the last estimate is $1 mil/day it still is not enough as there are still people sleeping on the street and starving. Keep in mind not all of these people are drug users.

  5. Melinda says:

    I don’t live in Vancouver- heck, I don’t even live in Canada- but I think you make a fairly universal argument here. In my town, there is definitely a “good” part of town and a “bad” part of town- that is, an area that has a much higher crime rate. But why is one neighborhood “good” and another not? I suppose you could blame it on a lot of things- average income, general upkeep of the houses, property taxes, etc.- but I think it all points back at a victim mentality (or lack thereof). People in the better neighborhoods do not tolerate crime, period. Yes, there are still problems- domestic abuse, in particular, also some property crime- but not nearly at the rate of some places.

    Just my two cents!

  6. Jethero says:

    This post reminds me of a talk on TED by Dave Meslin about apathy. What Meslin presented rings out in Cst. Addison’s post; that apathy isn’t a syndrome, but a collective cultural construction of red tape and barriers. I like what Lloyd said as well, that people need to stand up and make the troubles known. Once one person has the courage (a kind of voluntary heroism, according to Meslin) to do so others will follow and it will resonate beyond. It may not be your destiny to change the world, but by golly you can at least to do something.

  7. aktiv says:

    The presence or absence of a “cone of silence” will not make the difference in whether things change for the better.
    Public policies and circumstances will primarily determine what life in the DTES is like for people.

    “I figure you can hand out a million needles. You can give away a thousand homes. You can build a hundred addiction centres. But until … I have little hope that anything will change for the better.”

    So having the poor housed, on the road to being off drugs, not selling or committing crimes for their fix, not prostituting themselves with abusive pimps, and being at way lowered risk of HIV … is not enough to to give you more hope that anything will change for the better?
    Some perspective you have.

  8. cash says:

    “We are de-facto psychiatrists. We are front-line social workers.”

    There’s lots to engage with in this post, but I’ll pick this. The problem is, you’re *not* social workers, and you’re not mental health workers-or at least properly trained ones. Police officers are not trained to perform these roles effectively. Speaking generally, I don’t think they’re particularly good at them (certainly the history of VPD in the DTES suggests this). As a group, cops are not recruited with social work and empathy as their primary skills–they’re hardasses, that’s what they’re trained to be.

    One aspect of the problem is that the entire social support and mental health infrastructure has been destroyed and now we have poorly trained police officers filling the gaps for people who have no support.

    • DAK says:

      The police recruit selection process is not geared to hire “the hard asses”. One component is the Assessment Centre which has been around for over 40 years is used across industries and professions including policing. It is considered a fairly accurate tool. The applicants have to display a balance between empathy and assertiveness. Or what you call “hard ass”

      Steve never suggested cops are social workers or psychiatrists. Or that police officers have the training required to be one. Cops are the ones “left holding the bag” when none of these professionals are around at 2 am. Do you have a better solution?

      • cash says:

        Thanks for your comment. Yes, I do have a better solution. We could have the professionals [by which I assume you mean people with appropriate expertise, training and most of all, the resources to support, shelter and provide stability to people with complex mental health issues and addictions] be “around at 2 am”.

        • Steve (not the cop) says:

          Well, I can honestly say that I’ve seen/met more bad social workers than I’ve seen good ones. And I’ve seen and met many.
          This is quite frightening, given the power and authority they often have over people’s lives.

          ‘Professional’ status and/or diplomas and degrees are certainly not anywhere close to a guarantee of competence. Especially in the field of psychology and all of its variables and intangibles.
          I’ve seen many incompetent social workers insist that they are right simply because they are “trained professionals”.
          One cannot instill genuine empathy and/or compassion in a classroom.
          Because each human being and each circumstance are different, there can be no universal ‘training’. This isn’t physical medicine, where my broken arm will heal in the same way as your broken arm. When dealing with psychology – especially the psychology of vulnerable and troubled individuals, each situation demands its own unique approach.

          The best social workers I’ve seen have been the ones who are willing to break from their ‘training’ and custom and use their own common sense / genuine empathy / sincere compassion. The book goes out the window.

          • DTES Vet says:

            I have to agree with Steve here.

            I have worked with many professionals that are lost without their text books and really don’t know how to just listen.

    • Raingurl says:

      Well said, Cash!

      “One aspect of the problem is that the entire social support and mental health infrastructure has been destroyed and now we have poorly trained police officers filling the gaps for people who have no support.”

    • Raingurl says:

      Let the police catch the bad guys. PERIOD. Let’s demand more social programs. Demand we bring the ones back that we had before Campbell took over.

  9. foxhills says:

    I’m not sure what most police officers expect when they decide on law enforcement for a career. Screwing up is part of being human, you’ll never change that. But your intentions do matter and they can effect change. When I was 17 or so, I used to walk home from parties and friends houses at 2 in the morning in a not so nice neighbourhood. By myself. One time, a policeman pulled up beside me and asked why I was doing this. I was like, I’m fine, what is your problem? Because of course, at 17 I had all the answers. He very gravely told me that he sometimes had to deal with the remains of girls like me. See, he said, it’s so deserted right now that a car could pull up right there. You’d be in it and overpowered before it stopped moving. You wouldn’t even have time to scream. I think I scoffed a little at the time, but you know, I never did it again. It horrifies me now when I think about it. And I don’t hesitate to tell it to others when it’s relevant. That officer levelled the playing field for me. He did what he could to head off disaster. I think he left thinking he didn’t get through to me. But he did.

  10. Tony says:

    It’s not apathy ,there is a jailhouse mentality and the shame factor that you get with abused people. I live in a SRO and I see the game played out , we have group of residents w are bent and the rest don’t become involved from fear of repercussions .

  11. Mark says:

    I’m a Main St prosecutor, and I echo Steve’s comments re frustration with people refusing to say publicly what they witnessed (which is just one of many roadblocks to prosecuting people for crimes). I don’t blame them – they don’t want to be labled “rats” and “goofs” and get beat up when they walk home one night, and a court-ordered “no-contact” is small comfort outside the courthouse doors. That doesn’t make it less frustrating for me, though, when we can’t hold someone accountable.

    • Pangeran says:

      I read this an have heard of other tnighs like this going on. Its shocking to see that there are programs like this one. And some people would argue that its just promoting their bad habits and helping them to continue the same habits. And in a way it is but its also giving the person a sense of belonging and that there are people out there that care. I just think that all the people that come in sould be offered some kind of counselling or therapy. They wouldn’t be forced into it, just sugguested. Especially if there are regular people shooting up at this location. Its a good thing to help people and make a difference. But they should take another step up and try to help them out more.