Vancouver To Decriminalize Poverty

By Jen St. Denis, The Tyee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

This week — after a marathon three-day session to hear from hundreds of speakers — Vancouver city councillors voted unanimously to  “decriminalize poverty.”

Vancouver Ends Street Checks

What does that mean?  Ideally, sometime in the future, Vancouver police won’t spend as much  time and resources policing homelessness, people with mental health and  drug addictions, or sex workers.

The motion comes after council voted to tell the police board to end street checks on July 23.

“This is a huge conversation, and it won’t  be easy,” said Coun. Christine Boyle. “But council has acknowledged we  need a different approach.”

The motion, which was  brought forward by Coun. Jean Swanson, doesn’t call for an outright cut  to the police budget, but Swanson hopes it will set the stage for an  eventual cut, possibly as early as this December.

Boyle thinks 2021 is a more  realistic timeframe, given the three substantial pieces of work that  will have to be completed by city staff, the Vancouver Police Department  and a number of community groups.

‘Itemize The Work’

The motion asks the VPD “to itemize the  work they do that is related to mental health, homelessness, drug use,  sex work and the amount of money spent on it, including the number of  tickets issued from enforcing related bylaws as well as the cost of this  enforcement.”

From a range of community groups, council  wants to know “how the city could support existing and future  community-based harm reduction and safety services.”

City staff have been tasked to create “a  plan, timeline and budget to de-prioritize policing as a response to  mental health, sex work, homelessness and substance use and to  prioritize funding community-led harm reduction and safety initiatives  in these areas.”

City Department Already Swamped

Boyle warned that the city department that  will do that work is currently “swamped,” and she didn’t expect a report  back before the city budget process starts in late fall.

The B.C. government is in the midst of a  review of policing in the province, and that will also be a factor in  council’s work to reassess policing priorities, Boyle added.

Defund The Police

Calls to “defund the police” have been  growing in the United States as well as Canada in the wake of protests  sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police  officers.

The deaths of three Canadians this June —  Chantel Moore, Rodney Levi (in New Brunswick) and Ejaz Choudry (in Ontario) — has put a spotlight on how  police handle mental health calls and “wellness” checks.

On July 24, 27 and 28, speakers told Vancouver council that the criminal justice system isn’t working for marginalized people.

“I think we are looking at more than just  mental health apprehensions,” said Katherine Shortreed, a lawyer who  represents many clients who struggle with mental health and addictions  issues.

“We’re looking at sex work, homelessness,  how much time officers are spending evicting people from tent cities,  how much time are officers spending on arresting that guy for that 27th  shoplifting offence because he needs more money for drugs.”

Distrustful of Police

Tonye Aganaba spent their allotted  speakers’ time of five minutes to tell council about alternative models  to policing. They told The Tyee their own experience has made them  distrustful of police.

After being pulled over in  rural B.C., Aganaba said a police officer asked them if they had any  drugs in the car and then impounded the vehicle, “leaving two people of  colour on the side of the road.” 

After another upsetting experience of  attempting to report a sexual assault to the Vancouver Police Department  and seeing other members of the Black community repeatedly  street-checked, Aganaba said they would never call the police again.

Aganaba said an activist community has  formed around the two motions, and they plan to stay active to monitor  what happens with the call to ban street checks and the “decriminalize  poverty” motion.

Police Refuse 1% Budget Cut

Earlier this spring, the Vancouver Police  Board refused to make a one per cent cut to its budget requested by  council as the COVID-19 crisis squeezed municipal budgets.

Speaking to the “decriminalize poverty”  motion, Ralph Kaisers, the president of the police union, warned council  about cutting the VPD’s budget, saying reducing funds to the tune of $6  million could mean 60 fewer police officers.

Boyle clarified to The Tyee that that  $6-million figure is one floated by staff earlier this month and refers  to foregoing an increase to the police budget, not a cut to existing  funding.

More Police Officers Needed

Kaisers said the number of officers has remained the same since 2009, even as calls for service and population have risen.

Deputy police chief Howard Chow told  council that the VPD has been running several innovative mental health  response programs for years and has been responding to fewer  mental-health related calls over the past decade.

But, he said, 91 per cent of calls to  police from mental health professionals about clients involve violence  and 20 per cent involve weapons.

Chow said he agrees that more funding is  needed for mental health, addictions and homelessness, but he said that  funding shouldn’t come from the police budget. 

“To pull it from policing is a recipe for disaster in terms of public safety,” Chow said. 

Top photo credit: A motion passed by Vancouver city council this week doesn’t call for an outright cut to the police budget but could set the stage for an eventual cut, possibly as early as this December. Photo by Joshua Berson.

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