NEWS

Pivot Le­gal has re­leased a new re­port that shows how 10 B.C. po­lice forces un­der­mine harm-re­duc­tion ef­forts.

The Georgia Straight - - Contents - By Travis Lupick

Home­less peo­ple and marginal­ized drug users in B.C. face sys­temic per­se­cu­tion by po­lice, a year­long in­ves­ti­ga­tion by Pivot Le­gal So­ci­ety makes clear.

The re­port by the Van­cou­ver nonprofit re­leased Wed­nes­day (De­cem­ber 5) de­scribes “ha­rass­ment, dis­place­ment, threats, racism, and vi­o­lence at the hands of po­lice and polic­ing in­sti­tu­tions”.

“We found that par­tic­i­pants share an ex­treme dis­trust of po­lice, and are re­luc­tant to call upon them when their safety is at risk or when they are a vic­tim of a crime,” it reads.

The 132-page doc­u­ment was au­thored by Pivot’s Dar­cie Ben­nett and DJ Larkin. It re­lies on 76 in­ter­views con­ducted in 10 com­mu­ni­ties across B.C. Ti­tled Project In­clu­sion: Con­fronting Anti-home­less & Anti-sub­stance User Stigma in Bri­tish Columbia, it presents its find­ings in the con­text of the prov­ince’s over­dose epi­demic. This year, B.C. is on track for more than 1,500 il­licit-drug over­dose deaths, com­pared to an av­er­age of 204 dur­ing the years 2001 to 2010.

In a tele­phone in­ter­view, Ben­nett said that too of­ten po­lice are at odds with health-au­thor­ity pro­grams de­ployed in re­sponse to the over­dose cri­sis. She ex­plained that to re­duce over­dose deaths, B.C. has re­lied on a harm-re­duc­tion ap­proach, which in­cludes nee­dle-ex­change ser­vices,

from pre­vi­ous page over­dose-pre­ven­tion sites, drugtest­ing equip­ment, and other ini­tia­tives that al­low peo­ple who are go­ing to use drugs to do so in a way that is as safe as pos­si­ble. Mean­while, Ben­nett con­tin­ued, po­lice use a per­son’s in­volve­ment with those very pro­grams—car­ry­ing a clean sy­ringe, for ex­am­ple—as grounds for a search and jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for drug-law en­force­ment.

“Po­lice are tak­ing peo­ple’s harm­re­duc­tion sup­plies or de­stroy­ing harm-re­duc­tion sup­plies,” Ben­nett told the Geor­gia Straight. “So we have two sys­tems op­er­at­ing: we have a pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment that has in­vested in harm re­duc­tion and we have health au­thor­i­ties that are mak­ing sure sup­plies get to peo­ple…and then we have po­lice in mul­ti­ple ju­ris­dic­tions where peo­ple told us they’ve had harm-re­duc­tion sup­plies seized, both new and used, or de­stroyed in front of them.”

Ben­nett sug­gested ev­ery tax­payer should be con­cerned about Pivot’s find­ings, re­gard­less of whether they are di­rectly af­fected by ad­dic­tion.

“It’s an in­ef­fi­cient use of money,” she said.

Ben­nett re­counted one drug user who shared her ex­pe­ri­ence with a sy­ringe ex­change.

“In the re­port, there is one woman who says, ‘Health hands them out and then the po­lice take them away,’ ” Ben­nett said. “That’s a waste of money.”

An­other anec­dote presents a sim­i­lar story from the per­spec­tive of health-care providers.

“Lo­cal health nurses must ed­u­cate peo­ple who use drugs not only about ef­fec­tive harm-re­duc­tion prac­tices but also how to avoid hav­ing sup­plies taken by po­lice,” the re­port reads.

Project In­clu­sion was drafted with sup­port from the Pro­vin­cial Health Ser­vices Au­thor­ity. Pivot said the re­port does not name the 10 ju­ris­dic­tions on which staff fo­cused for fear that would re­veal sources’ iden­ti­ties. The Van­cou­ver Po­lice Depart­ment (VPD) and the B.C. RCMP did not make rep­re­sen­ta­tives avail­able for in­ter­views for this story.

The VPD was likely the first po­lice force in North Amer­ica to of­fi­cially adopt harm re­duc­tion as a com­po­nent of its drug pol­icy. “Harm re­duc­tion is nec­es­sary to sup­port pub­lic health ob­jec­tives such as re­duc­ing trans­mis­sion rates of HIV and hepati­tis, as well as pre­vent­ing drug over­doses,” reads a VPD doc­u­ment dated Septem­ber 2006.

Ben­nett de­scribed how dis­con­nects around au­thor­i­ties’ treat­ment of drug users can af­fect the larger com­mu­nity. “Peo­ple don’t want to be found with harm-re­duc­tion sup­plies on them be­cause of the gen­eral sort of crim­i­nal­iza­tion around it,” she said. Ben­nett ex­plained that some­one who has used a sy­ringe to in­ject drugs there­fore might de­cide not to carry it to a des­ig­nated dis­posal site and in­stead might throw the used nee­dle on the ground. “There are some gen­uine com­mu­nity safety is­sues that come from this,” she added.

Ben­nett sug­gested that prob­lems are so sys­temic they re­quire so­lu­tions from above the 10 po­lice forces re­viewed.

“We have two philoso­phies that are work­ing at cross-pur­poses,” she said. “We need a di­rec­tive from the prov­ince that says, ‘Polic­ing needs to come in line with the mea­sures that we are tak­ing as a prov­ince to sup­port harm re­duc­tion.’ ”

A Pivot Le­gal So­ci­ety re­port makes the case that po­lice un­der­mine harm-re­duc­tion ef­forts by seiz­ing or de­stroy­ing nee­dles and other sup­plies that keep peo­ple alive.

Dar­cie Ben­nett (above) and DJ Larkin wrote Pivot’s Project In­clu­sion re­port.

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