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.Share