Statements by public officials
Asked by the CBC interviewer about the concern raised by numerous health professionals that the crackdown would fuel a new wave of HIV and hepatitis C transmission, Graham noted: "If certain people get sick, I'm sorry-that happens. What was here before was completely unacceptable, we couldn't allow that to continue." He suggested the health sector would need to work harder and find more funds to minimize the health impact of the crackdown.129 Earlier, a police department spokesperson said the department was working with health authorities and providing referral cards to people on the street to direct them to counseling and needle exchange services.130 In four days of observing police activity on the streets of the Downtown Eastside and numerous encounters with drug users and service providers, Human Rights Watch did not encounter evidence of such referrals by the police.
Police inspector Doug LePard, the director of the operation, told the press on April 16 that he had heard from many "drug addicts" in the Downtown Eastside who thanked the police for their increased presence. "We've got addicts telling us that they feel safer, and they're the ones most likely to be the victims of predatory crimes. . . . Our presence makes it much more difficult for the predators to pick on the weak."131
Human Rights Watch spoke with the district commander for the part of Vancouver that includes the Downtown Eastside, Bob Rich. Rich lamented that the concerns of human rights and AIDS activists about the crackdown were ignoring the perspective of thousands of Downtown Eastside residents who were entitled to relief from perceived threats of violence and property crime associated with the neighborhood's drug trade. He acknowledged that Vancouver's electorate supported a four-pillar approach to the drug problem-an approach he said he also supports-but emphasized that the harm reduction pillar had already begun in the form of needle exchange, and that the police force was not prepared to wait for the opening of a safe injection site to "restore order to a community in distress."132 Asked about the potential negative impact of policing on needle exchange efforts, he speculated that actual drug use (and thus the demand for sterile syringes) might decrease as a result of the current police action. He also said that long-term research was needed to determine the precise impact of policing on needle exchange numbers.
Rich objected strongly to the strategy of human rights organizations, most notably the Pivot Legal Society, of making public allegations of police brutality without conducting a full investigation. He acknowledged that some people might be searched in violation of the requirements of section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Asked whether the police's current complaint process provided a sufficient avenue of redress for allegations of police misconduct, Rich said that the current system fails to create an apprehension of fairness among complainants and, in a perfect world, would be more balanced.133 He also regretted that the Pivot Legal Society's strategy of distributing "know your rights" cards to drug users was eroding a sense of cooperation between the police and the community.
Shortly after the launch of the crackdown, the police announced that they had engaged a graduate student from a local university to conduct an evaluation of the police's campaign.134 Though the crackdown was originally presented to the city council as a three-month experiment, the police chief told the press on April 9 that whether the city council approved additional funding for more officers on the Downtown Eastside or not, the police department intended to continue the operation. "One thing we're not going to do is fold up our tent and we're not going to go home," said Police Chief Graham.135 Subsequently, Inspector Bob Rich told Human Rights Watch that the police department was not necessarily going to continue the operation without an evaluation of its consequences.136
Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell was conspicuous in the broadcast and print media during the first ten days of the crackdown, repeatedly stating that if there was police brutality as part of the crackdown, he wanted details reported and formal complaints made. "If you are being mistreated by the police, it's a very serious concern, and I want to hear about it. But I'm tired of people saying they've been mistreated by the police and not doing anything about it," the mayor told the press.137
Some members of the Vancouver City Council expressed concern to Human Rights Watch about the dominance of the law enforcement pillar in the city's actions so far. "Policing can't be the solution," particularly in the absence of massive increases in funding for treatment and harm reduction services, said city council member Tim Louis.138 "Drug use is a medical problem-it's a health and provincial issue. It is criminal that there is not adequate funding for a safe injection site," he said, noting also the need for treatment on demand for drug users. Ellen Woodsworth, another city councillor elected in the COPE sweep in November 2002, noted that recent cuts in provincial income assistance programs should be seen as a root cause of the drug problem. "Thousands of people have been laid off; training programs, programs for immigrants and refugees and people out of school have been cut," she said, creating conditions ripe for people to be lured into the drug trade in the absence of other livelihood options.139
The national and provincial elected representatives of the Downtown Eastside criticized the crackdown and reiterated their support for strengthening the harm reduction "pillar" of the city's four-pillar plan. Member of Parliament Libby Davies and Jenny Kwan, the district's representative to the British Columbia provincial assembly, described the crackdown as "destructive and divisive."140 The two legislators called for an inquiry into police conduct in the crackdown based on reports they had received "about the confiscation of drugs, intimidation tactics, illegal searches and the use of aggressive police actions against users and non-users, and the violation of people's rights." They encouraged the city council to continue to oppose the intensive police presence, and said the crackdown "needs to be stopped, not reviewed." They also expressed the urgent need for safe injection sites.
Avenues of complaint and redress
Police abuse that violates human rights, for example by discriminating against drug users on the basis of disability, may be the subject of complaint before the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal. Until October 2002, the province of British Columbia like all other Canadian provinces had a Human Rights Commission, but it was abolished by law at that time. The legislation that abolished the commission provided for direct presentation of complaints to the Tribunal, which the provincial government presented as a "streamlining" measure.142 Policy and human rights groups widely criticized the measure, noting that the Commission's education and public hearing mandates were essential as complaint adjudication is not enough, and expressing concern that the new law allowed the Tribunal to dismiss complaints without hearing and absolved the government of its previous obligation to provide legal representation for complainants who could not afford lawyers.143
Neither the Vancouver city council, nor the provincial and federal health ministries who invest in harm reduction programs, exert any formal control over the policies and operations of the Vancouver police department. "In British Columbia, the police are their own force; they have their own board of directors," noted city council member Tim Louis. The municipal bylaws establish the mayor as the president of the Vancouver Police Board and allow for one member of the seven-member board to be appointed by the city council.144
128 Canadian Broadcasting Company British Columbia, Radio One, The Afternoon Show, interview with Vancouver Police Chief Jamie Graham, April 18, 2003, available online at http://www.vancouver.cbc.ca/afternoonshow/. Heard April 19, 2003.
130 Amy Carmichael, "Crackdown in Vancouver slum...," Canadian Press, April 11, 2003.
131 Frances Bula and Brian Morton, "Mayor kickstarts four-pillar drug plan," Vancouver Sun, April 16, 2003.
132 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Inspector Bob Rich, New York, April 24, 2003.
133 This is discussed further under "Avenues of complaint and redress," below.
134 Bula and Fong, "Police drug plan was six months...," Vancouver Sun, April 12, 2003.
135 Amy O'Brian and Petti Fong, "Drug crackdown to continue: VPD chief," Vancouver Sun, April 10, 2003.
136 Voicemail communication from Inspector Bob Rich to Human Rights Watch, April 24, 2003.
137 Peg Fong and Frances Bula, "90 arrested in drug sweep: The first five days of a major campaign has produced hundreds of trafficking charges," Vancouver Sun, April 12, 2003.
138 Human Rights Watch interview, Vancouver, April 14, 2003.
139 Human Rights Watch interview, Vancouver, April 14, 2003. See also information on British Columbia's income assistance reforms in footnote 121.
140 Statement from Libby Davies MP, Vancouver East, and Jenny Kwan MLA, member of the provincial Legislative Assembly, Vancouver Mt. Pleasant, April 11, 2003.
142 See, for example, open letter of Geoff Plant, Attorney General of British Columbia on "Restructuring British Columbia's Human Rights System," August 1, 2002.
143 See, for example, British Columbia Group on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (B.C. CEDAW Group), "British Columbia Moves Backwards on Women's Equality," January 2003; S. Day, "Rolling back human rights in B.C.," Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Human Rights Code Brief, 2002 [online], http://www.policyalternatives.ca/bc/ human_rights_code_brief.pdf (retrieved April 19, 2003).
144 See description of Vancouver Police Board, available online at