Advocates fear Downtown Eastside police crackdown pushes drug users into shadows

published on February 4, 2018 by Nick Eagland in Vancouver Sun

While Vancouver police proclaim victory in a recent crackdown on crime in the Downtown Eastside, some locals fear the boost in beat cops is pushing people who use drugs into harm’s way.

Last week, Vancouver police increased foot patrols in the impoverished neighbourhood to address “street disorder” and prevent violence. Police said the sweeps came in response to a surge in complaints from residents, business owners and visitors. As well, people with mobility issues and the elderly have complained about blocked sidewalks and doorways.

But drug users and groups representing the marginalized believe the bolstered police presence has deterred people from using overdose-prevention services during the fentanyl-related overdose crisis. Last week, the B.C. Coroners Service announced that 1,422 people had died of a suspected overdose in 2017, up 43 per cent from 2016. Fentanyl was detected in 81 per cent of cases and 88 per cent of deaths were indoors.

“I feel that (the police will) find a way to incriminate you, if they can, because they want to meet their quota,” said Larissa, who visited the Overdose Prevention Society at 58 East Hastings St. on Saturday.

Larissa, who asked that her last name not be printed, said people who use drugs can feel dehumanized by police, and uniformed officers standing outside an injection site will make them feel unwelcome. She worries her friends may instead use alone, use dirty needles or get robbed while hiding in alleyways.

“I think that it will make a lot of people stop coming,” she said. “They could just be out in the alley, dropping.”

Joy, an Overdose Prevention Society volunteer in recovery, who also asked that her last name not be printed, said there’s been a marked decrease in visits since the police crackdown.

She said most visitors know police “are here to do their job” but at the same time worry they may get nabbed for possession. When police round the corner to the alleyway behind the OPS, drug users shout “Six up!” and scatter into the shadows, she said.

“They just want to be somewhere where it’s comfortable,” she said. “As long as the police aren’t harassing them, nobody really says much of anything.”

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