Happy to be proven wrong

“Tap, Tap, Tap.”

I jolted up, and nearly spilled a half cup of lukewarm Tim Horton’s double-double into my lap.

They train you at the police academy to always be alert when you’re on the street. They call it keeping your head on a swivel. If your head’s on a swivel, you’re always on the look-out for the guy on the corner doing a quick drug deal. You’ve always got an eye out for the guy trying door handles, or for the guy up the street who just did the one-eighty because he has a warrant. Most importantly, if your head’s on a swivel, you’re always looking out for dangerous situations, like someone who may want to sneak up from behind and hurt you.

Or, in this case, for a 95-pound waif tapping your patrol car window with the point of her umbrella.

“What happened?” she asked, pointing her umbrella toward the ribbon of yellow police tape strung up across the entrance to the south lane of the 1oo East Hastings.

I’d been parked there for the past hour and a half, making sure nobody got past the tape. It’s a rotten detail, but I was working alone this day, and this was a one-man job. While working alone has its benefits, it also means you get saddled with many of the less-desirable jobs — like idling for hours on end outside a crime scene.

“Somebody got assaulted in the lane,” I said. “Know anything?”

She shook her head side to side. We both knew that even if she did have information about what happened, she wasn’t likely to tell me and risk being labeled a rat.

“How was welfare day?” I asked, trying to keep the conversation rolling.

“Sucked,” she said. “I blew all my money. Now I got nothing left.”

There was an awkward pause. She began to walk away, then stopped and looked back over her shoulder.

“So, I’m getting out of here,” she said. “I’m going into treatment…getting picked up in an hour. After tonight, you won’t see me down here no more.”

I’ve met my share of hard-done-bys since being posted to the Beat Enforcement Team nearly five years ago. Out of all of them, this young lady ranked among the worst. She was an addict, a thug and a thief. I once caught her trying to steal a car, after she pinched the keys from the pocket of a drunk who was looking for a cheap date.

The only time I’ve ever heard her mutter the word treatment was when she tried to guilt me into letting her go on a warrant arrest by suggesting she’d lose her treatment bed if I put her in jail. I didn’t believe her then, and as much as I wanted to, I didn’t believe her now.

But as I spoke with her through the window of my police car, I recalled a conversation I had about this girl a year earlier with my former partner, Tyler.

“I can see her being one of the girls to get cleaned up and to get out of here,” he said, ever the optimist.

Tyler is a real glass-half-full kind of guy.  He always seems to see the potential in people, even if it sometimes requires blind faith. I’m not so much a pessimist, but more of a pragmatist.

But maybe Tyler was right. Maybe this girl could get herself cleaned up, kick her addiction to heroin and crack, move herself out of this horrible neighbourhood and actually make a life for herself.

“Well, here’s hoping I never see you again,” I said, raising my Tim Horton’s cup in a half-hearted salute.

She started to walk away again, then looked back and gave an equally half-hearted wave.

“You’ll probably see me again,” she said. “Just not like this. I’ll be clean.”

With that she wandered back towards Hastings Street and disappeared around the corner.

That was more a year ago.

In the weeks and months that followed, I often wondered what had happened to the girl. I’d asked a few people on the street if they’d seen her, but most just shook their heads. They probably thought I was trying to track her down on another warrant.

I’d heard rumours that she’d made it to treatment and that she was busy proving me wrong. I hoped that was the case. Still, I kept expecting to one day find her tucked in an alcove with a crack pipe hanging off her lips.

Weeks turned to months and months became a year, and eventually I just stopped asking.

Truth is, after a few years working in this place, you get used to seeing people drift in and drift out. It’s a familiar pattern. Go to jail, get out and come back to the skids. Go to treatment, slip up and come back to the skids. Go into hiding, get found and, well, you get the idea. Like I’ve said before, this place is like the Hotel California — you can check in, but you can never leave.

So even though I hadn’t seen her for more than a year, I always just assumed I would see her again. I know it sounds defeatist and pessimistic, but that’s the sad reality down here.

Several weeks ago I caught wind from some other police officers that the girl was not only clean and living in the burbs, but that she wanted to come by the old police station at Main and Hastings to say hello to some of the cops who walked the beat when she was here. I was asked if I wanted to meet with her, and I jumped at the chance.

It’s rare in this neighbourhood for police to get the opportunity for a heart-to-heart with the people who live here. Too many people are worried about being seen as a snitch, and others are simply too distrustful of the police. Others who could use an ear to bend are too often lured away by the draw of the needle and the hoot of the crack pipe. As a result, police officers rarely get to hear the real stories about people ended up in this neighbourhood.

I felt a little nervous as I stood in the lobby of the police station waiting for her to arrive. I had traipsed her through the front doors of the old police station at Main and Hastings many times — both as a suspect in handcuffs and as a victim in tears. The last time I’d seen her, she was a 95-pound addict with needle pokes in her arms and crack-pipe burns on her lips.

In my mind, that’s who I was expecting to see again, and if I hadn’t been awaiting her arrival, I probably would have walked on by without recognizing her.

She was healthy, happy and — for once — wanted to be at the police station.

“I’m a new person,” she said, looking just as nervous as me.

We stood and talked for more than an hour about how she ended up in the Downtown Eastside, what finally got her out, and how she plans on staying clean. They weren’t simple questions.

She talked about being the child of an alcoholic mother, and how she first got drunk as a child. She explained how the booze turned to pot, and how by her early teens she was using party drugs like ecstasy and hanging around Hastings Street with her boyfriend. She explained how the party drugs led to crystal meth, how the meth led to heroin and cocaine, and how the heroin and cocaine led to nearly a decade of lying, cheating, thieving and scamming her way from fix to fix in the Downtown Eastside.

Now 28, she told me about how she used to rip people off so she could get money for drugs, and how she would rob men, first by posing as a prostitute, then by stealing their wallets when she had them alone.

She told me about her last few weeks on skid row — about hearing rumours about a hit on her and about being afraid to go outside.

Then she talked about rock bottom — the night she almost died at the hands of a man who tried to buy sex, then forced himself on her and nearly strangled her to death when she declined. The man was eventually caught and convicted of aggravated sexual assault.

We talked about the tortuous journey to get herself out of the Downtown Eastside, to get clean, and to stay clean. We talked about what it was like to testify against her attacker, and what she does whenever she craves drugs.

I asked her if she felt like the proverbial kid in the candy store, standing inside the police station in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, with drug dealers plying their trade just steps away from the front door. And while she insisted that she wasn’t tempted to use, there was no chance I was letting her take one unchaperoned step outside.

So, when she asked to go out for a smoke, I knew I had to join her. As I stood watching her in the alley behind the police station, I caught her glancing down the lane towards Hastings Street.

I asked her what she was looking at. Between puffs she told me how badly she wanted to wander over to Hastings and say hello to her old friends. They were just around the corner, she reasoned, and they were such good friends.

Friends? I figured she had to be joking. These were people who wouldn’t hesitate to sell her a piece of rock or a flap of heroin — people who could care less that she’d been clean and sober from more than a year.

I don’t know if she was fooling herself, or trying to fool me, but I knew that if I let her wander away there was a damn good chance she’d never come back. So I stayed with her as she finished one smoke, then lit another and power dragged it.

We made idle chat until her ride — another police officer — arrived to take her home to the suburbs.

Before she left, I asked her one final question. I wanted to know what she thought about the police officers who walk the beat in the Downtown Eastside. There is still such an us-against-them attitude for so many people who exist in this neighbourhood, and I could only imagine there was some lingering resentment towards the police who had made it so hard for her to be a criminal and a drug addict.

I was a little surprised when she told me there were no hard feelings, and that she now realized that all those times we busted her and took her to jail, that we were actually trying to help her. She thanked us for the work we do.

It was refreshing and encouraging to hear.

Success stories are rare in the Downtown Eastside, and after a while you tend to get a little cynical. Most people become cops because they want to make a difference in someone’s life. Here, in the Downtown Eastside, chances to do that sometimes seem few and far between. It can be really hard to stay motivated when nothing ever seems to change.

As I waved goodbye, I again told her that I hope I never see her again on the Downtown Eastside. She assured me I wouldn’t.

And unlike the first time she said it, this time I tended to believe her.

I told her she had proven me wrong, and I was glad she did.

I can only hope she continues to do so.

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Posted in Real Life Stories | 34 Comments

Hoping for a long (and peaceful) playoff run

Tonight was the opening night of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which got me thinking about our beloved Canucks’ run from a year ago — and about the riot that followed the team’s Game 7 loss. I dusted off this picture of Your’s Truly, making my best scowly face in the midst of the mayhem last June 15. Here’s hoping for another deep playoff run, and for a little more civility on our streets in 2012. To date, more than 500 charges have been recommended in connection with last year’s riot, with 18 more charges being approved today. Take a look at this link to see if you can ID any outstanding riot suspects.

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Posted in Uncategorized | 17 Comments

We made it to Madagascar…

… and Namibia

… and even Afghanistan.

One of my greatest pleasures — almost as great as fighting crime and late-night blogging — is getting the month-end stats for Eastside Stories and finding out who’s been popping by.

And as you can see from the map above, there’s quite a cross section — 80 different countries, in fact. The dark green countries are the ones that visit often; the beige-ier ones not so much. I had to dust off my little atlas to make sure I got all the names right.

Though we’re doing quite well in Canada (thanks in part to my mother’s 100-plus visits a day), as well as in the U.S. and Europe, we haven’t quite hit our stride in North Africa or the Middle East. So if you know anybody in those parts, give them a shout and tell them to log on so we can colour in this map a little more.

All joking aside, I’m quite humbled to see just how many people continue to visit Eastside Stories and join in on the discussions that take place on the message boards. You’ve managed to share your thoughts and ideas in a respectful and thought-provoking way. I am also appreciative of all the folks who have sent me personal and private messages, often sharing their own stories about addiction and the obstacles they’ve overcome.

I first approached the VPD MoneyMakers a year ago with the idea of launching a blog to show people what it’s really like to be a cop in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Much is said and written about this neighbourhood, but rarely from the perspective of the police.

I figured this would only work if Eastside Stories was raw, personal and honest.  I’m lucky to work for an organization that agreed. The VPD has always taken a hands-off approach to this project. And in a neighbourhood like the Downtown Eastside, which is often so political and so controversial, that really is a remarkable thing.

Over the past eight months I’ve written stories about successes and failures — including my own. We’ve discussed addiction issues and mental health. We’ve even tip-toed into the minefield of public policy (it’s a scary place). I’ve introduced you to some of my colleagues, and shared some personal thoughts and feelings about the things I see and do while walking the beat.

So as we move forward, here’s an invitation to you. Tell me what you want to see more of, or less of, in Eastside Stories. What resonates most with you? What moves you?

Hit the comment button at the end of this blog entry and let me have it. Tell me what you like and want to see more of. I have a thick skin, so you can also tell me if there’s anything you don’t like. Be nice, please. And by all means, send me your questions. It may take some time, but I’ll do my best to answer them as frankly as I can.

And make sure to tell your friends to join in the discussion.

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Posted in Uncategorized | 34 Comments

Mixing messages

Crack users on the Downtown Eastside are now being given crack-smoking kits, complete with lighters, pipes, filters and instructions on how to smoke crack. The boxes — they’re about the same size as a cigarette packages — are paid for by the government and handed out by government-funded agencies on the Downtown Eastside.

I can’t speak for all the police officers who work in this area, but it would sure be nice to see a little more “don’t do,” and a little less “how-to” when it comes to drug education. But maybe that’s just me.

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Posted in Seen and Heard | 48 Comments

The Perils of Searching

Police work is dangerous business, but sometimes the most dangerous situations come not when we’re chasing bad guys, but after they’ve already been caught. And in the Downtown Eastside, where infectious diseases like HIV and HEP C are epidemic, police officers must always be on high alert for dirty needles, broken crack pipes and anything else that could cause us harm.

I snapped this picture earlier this week in Chinatown after I found a man in a lane injecting morphine. Turns out he had a warrant, and before sending him to jail my partner and I had to search all of his belongings. Among dozens of used and unused needles, he had knives, crack pipes and other drug paraphernelia. It took a good 15 minutes to dump the stuff on the hood of our car and sort through it, all the while making sure we didn’t get poked or scratched.

The picture below is of the purse belonging to a woman we caught smoking crack earlier tonight on the sidewalk near Hastings and Columbia Streets. It was literally overflowing with needles, crack pipes and other paraphernalia. The orange packages are unused needles, which are handed out en masse throughout the Downtown Eastside. The little blue vials contain sterile water (also handed out en masse) which is used to mix with heroin, meth and cocaine. The beige tubing is part of a crack pipe. Addicts place the plastic tubes on the end of their glass pipes to prevent them from burning their lips on the hot glass when they smoke their crack.

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Posted in Seen and Heard | 7 Comments

Main and Hastings

A few dozen cop critics took over Main and Hastings during rush hour Thursday for an anti-police brutality rally.  This picture was taken from the roof of the Empress Hotel by Matt Shewchuk. Matt is part of a film crew that’s been following me and other members of the Beat Enforcement Team since September, as part of documentary series about policing in the Downtown Eastside.

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Posted in Seen and Heard | 41 Comments

Have badge, will run

I like to run.

Mainly I’m built for distance, but I can also move pretty quick if the adrenaline’s pumping.

And though it’s been close at times, I’m proud to say that I’ve never lost a foot pursuit.

But earlier this morning my winning streak nearly came to an end — but for a timely assist from someone unexpected.

It happened around 2 a.m. With an hour left in our shift, Dan and I grabbed a car and began skulking around Chinatown. We were hunting for anyone suspicious — dial-a-dopers, car thieves, break-in artists.

As we approached Columbia and Pender Street a guy on a bicycle came screaming through the intersection and rounded the corner. He was riding it like he’d stole it.

He looked back over his left shoulder, saw us, then stood up on the pedals and began stomping away. He clearly wanted nothing to do with us.

As police, we get paid to be suspicious, and this guy definitely got our spidey-senses tingling.

But any police officer who’s tried to stop someone from fleeing on a bike knows just how hard it is to do. Bikes can go places cars just can’t — narrow lanes, staircases, foot paths, between other cars.

We pulled up beside him and directed him to stop. He zigged. We zagged. Before we knew it he was up on the curb and pedaling like crazy down the sidewalk and into a narrow courtyard.

We hopped the curb and followed him into the courtyard, managing to cut him off just as he rounded a corner.

The bad guy on the bike came to a screeching stop and we both jumped out of the car to grab him. Unfortunately, he was determined to get away. He lifted up his bike, turned it around in the opposite direction and began hammering on the pedals.

I hit the automatic locks on the Crown Vic and started running after him. At the time it seemed like a good idea. I’ve been in my share of foot pursuits, and I know the bad guy’s adrenaline dump will only take him so far.

Usually, after a half block of sprinting he surrenders, ducks into an alcove, or slides behind a dumpster. If you can keep an eye on him you can usually catch up to him.

But on this morning, as our suspect widened the gap and turned the corner onto Carrall Street I realized my legs were just no match for his wheels — especially with those heavy boots and duty belt.

Dan was determined though. He continued to sprint, calling the turns from a distance for anybody else who might be patrolling in the area. I was impressed with the old guy.

“Northbound on Carrall…east in the lane…north on Columbia.”

But as the gap grew it seemed more and more inevitable that the bad guy was going to get away. I was too far from my car to go back, and besides, I’d locked the keys inside when I hit the automatic door locks.

I felt frustrated and helpless. I thought about commandeering someone’s bike to give chase, but no one was offering up their wheels to help my cause.

Then I looked around and saw the yellow cab idling on the corner, watching this all go down.

The cabbie and I made eye contact through the windshield, and he knew exactly what I wanted. He reached over and opened the passenger-side door. I jumped in, and without a word the cabbie took off in the direction of the cyclist.

We went northbound on Carrall, past my panting partner, who later told me how confused he was to see a cab driver helping out in containment.

We went east on Hastings, then turned onto Columbia Street just as another police car was corralling the bad guy on the bike.

The cabbie angled his car to a stop and I spilled out just in time to help click on the right handcuff. When it was all done I looked up to offer my thanks for the assist, but the cabbie had already faded away.

Just another day in the big city for him, I guess.

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Posted in Real Life Stories | 15 Comments

Why I do this job

Because I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie.
Because two-day weekends suck.
Because every now and then someone tells me I made a difference.
Because I hate bullies.
Because I hate cheaters.
Because I hate liars.
Because there’s a pensioner who lives on the corner who always crosses the street and thanks me for the work we do down here.
Because 9 to 5 sucks.
Because I get to see things nobody else sees.
Because I get to go places nobody else goes.
Because I love being a cat amongst the pigeons.
Because I work with a great partner.
Because I don’t have to wear a tie or sit at a desk. Ties and desks suck.
Because sometimes I get to drive fast.
Because every day is unpredictable.
Because ladies still love a man in uniform.
Because it feels good to put bad guys in jail.
Because it feels good to stand up for what’s right.
Because you just don’t get this channel at home.

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Posted in Front Line Views | 33 Comments

It was a mess when I started and a mess when I left

People sometimes ask me if what we’re doing in the Downtown Eastside makes a difference — if I’ve noticed any changes for the better since I’ve been down here.

Truth is, it’s kind of hard to tell if things are getting better or worse. It’s kind of like gaining weight and growing wrinkles. When you look at yourself in the mirror everyday, it’s sometimes difficult to see those subtle changes.

I was starting to think that maybe we’d turned a corner in the Downtown Eastside — that maybe things were looking up. Then I read this article in today’s Vancouver Sun.

Despite $1 million a day being spent on social services, the neighbourhood is still a mess, according to two former officers who testified at the Missing Women’s Inquiry. According to one former member things are “worse than ever.”

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Moving Day

It’s the first of the month, which means moving day on the Downtown Eastside. This fellow got more than his share of strange looks from rush-hour drivers as he lugged his mattress past the Carnegie Centre at Main and Hastings.

 

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Posted in Seen and Heard, Uncategorized | 7 Comments