Policing the Downtown Eastside amidst the collapse of the Four Pillars

LI like you am being worn out by the “epidemic” of the Fentanyl crisis. It is reported daily on all newscasts, camera footage of someone bent over an addict, trying to revive them with the usual punch in the ribs and a dose of Narcan. It is dramatic and it is sad and it is repetitive.

What ever happened to the “Four Pillars”?

Remember that political and social policy. Championed by Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen up to 2002, Larry Campbell from 2002-2005 (made Senator thereafter) and then carried on by Sam Sullivan until 2008. The current mayor Gregor Robertson rarely speaks of it, now seemingly wanting to distance himself from it.

The intent of the policy was to make illicit drug use a public health problem, not a policing issue per se, something more manageable if removed from being strictly a policing enforcement issue. The four pillars (you will be forgiven if you can’t remember what they were) were: prevention, enforcement, treatment, and harm reduction. So enforcement of the drug problem was still there, but in a reduced role and was to take a backseat to the goals of treatment and harm reduction. Admirable no doubt. Successful?

Lets analyze the four parts. How would you score each of these initiatives?  The 1st “Prevention” is almost impossible to measure, but surely no one would argue that the problem is declining or anything close to being termed a success. In fact one could argue there has been no measurable gain despite the efforts of many.

“Harm reduction” as defined by the Harm Reduction International group says that harm reduction refers to “policies, programs and practices that aim to reduce the harms associated with the use of psychoactive drugs in people unable to or unwilling to stop”. Harm reduction seems to accept the fact that most people throughout the world “continue to use psychoactive drugs despite even the strongest efforts to prevent the initiation or continued use of drugs”[1] They go on to say that the “majority of the people who use drugs do not need treatment”. This of course is the one and only initiative that seems to get government financial support whether it be pop up injection sites, or issuing Narcan kits for emergency service personnel.  This is the area where they could argue that they are making progress, but that would be difficult as we approach 800 overdose deaths. It is of course the easiest pillar and one that does not require longer term planning and development. If this is the only pillar which is working of course than we are simply on a never ending treadmill.

Thirdly there is “treatment”. This is now the media drum beat as there seems to be a consensus that there is an almost overwhelming need for treatment programs.  Just today another 38 beds were announced by the Provincial government for females. This has been obvious to many working in these streets for many years, and became especially acute after the closing of Riverview Hospital in 2012. At Riverview they dealt with the intertwined mental health issues which are an undercurrent among the downtrodden on the Eastside. One can not separate the mental health issues from the drug problem.

Treatment becomes more complicated when you are forced to consider the underlying problem of whether people are willing to go to treatment and recognizing that this is not a one-step method with the need for repeated follow up. Like alcoholism, it requires continuous vigilance.

Finally there is the “enforcement pillar”. Now relegated to fourth enforcement has now virtually disappeared.  So why is this?  Basic math seems to me that if there were fewer drugs on the street it would mean less overdose deaths. Wouldn’t an obvious at least partial cure for the problem right now, be to try and stem the flow of the drugs to the area. You will never stop it, but heightened fear amongst the drug dealers delivering fentanyl-laced products to the downtown core seems logical.

There are several problems and causes but first one must understand the nature of the policing world which has gone through some major structural changes which have for the most part done away with street level drug enforcement.

In the 1980’s the RCMP would often team up with the street crews of the Vancouver PD in the downtown Eastside, and do “street enforcement”. That no longer happens. We have entered the age of specialization and integration (something which I will write about more than once). No longer is street enforcement in vogue, but promotion and the monies are heading into specialized ” integrated “units where they can “partner” and deal with drugs on an “international” scope.

In the past there were various policing street crews, both in the RCMP and VPD and the assorted street crews and patrols and for the most part had a very strong grip on this postal code.  The officers had a good handle on who was doing what, who was bringing in the drugs, pimping the women etc. and the other assorted “trouble makers” in the area. There was a strong enforcement presence and those that walked the beat in the area were tough and there were street rules that needed to be followed. It was a symbiotic relationship between the criminals and the police.

The RCMP used to have a drug section based out of Vancouver. That is no longer. Every RCMP drug section and other Federal sections were part of a re-organization leading to the creation of “FSOC”,  the Federal Serious and Organized Crime section.

In this re-organization, the RCMP  has now done away with individualized specialized sections such as Drugs and Commercial Crime thus allowing the Federal priorities could be re-aligned into what Ottawa and the management of E Division felt was best.

In other words all of the officers were put in a big pile and then divided up in a number of teams. If your background was commercial crime, it didn’t matter, as your next case could be a drug file or a customs file. Likewise a Drug section folded into FSOC could have a white-collar crime file to attend to, or a file involving terrorist activities. In other words this re-organization has done away completely with any thought that expertise in an area must be developed and practiced over time. If this seems ludicrous, it is. Sources inside this change wholeheartedly feel that this has become a bureaucratic nightmare.

Why this re-alignment? According to the RCMP official website:

“With the federal re-engineering initiative, efforts have been under way to focus investigative priorities on groups involved in organized crime rather than specific commodities or criminal activities such as drugs, illegal firearms, contraband, or financial crimes.”[2]

The Province seems to have no handle or understanding of this transformation among the police. On July 27th, 2016 Premier Christy Clark announced that a Joint Task Force will work with the lyrical “Overdose and Alert Partnership” and Senior Police officials “to build and strengthen the actions already in place to prevent drug overdoses”. [3] Of course this is a way to keep away the critics from the back door and also give the appearance of a large investigative pro-active frontline group.

The Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General to whom the police report in this Province, Mike Morris is quoted in the government press release as saying:

“Due to the elevated overdose rates we are now seeing, it is critical that we further develop strategies to facilitate a rapid and safe medical response to drug overdoses. Police in B.C. have been responding to the issue of fentanyl on a number of fronts with front-line police working directly with individuals engaged in high levels of substance abuse, as well as new or casual users, on a daily basis. Officers work with outreach teams and service providers to educate individuals on the overdose prevention strategies provided by health care professionals.”[4]

Again no mention of enforcement. It would appear that the Provincial response in terms of the police involvement is to have the police fully involved in the harm reduction strategy. There is no mention of increased enforcement to assist in this effort, the police are there as pseudo social workers according to Mr. Morris.

In an online “exclusive” on the RCMP Web site they state that “VPD and FSOC managers recognized that the way forward for policing transnational organized crime in Vancouver was to re-visit the integrated team concept” that they have developed “an integrated working relationship with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland security investigations and CBSA, conducting collaborative operations amongst all agencies” and in fact according to VPD Mike Porteous at the time it was “working great”.

This news release was caused by their pointing to the undeniable success in Project Photoaxis, which had led to seizures in South Africa and numerous arrests of persons involved in the heroin trade. This file started in 2013, ran for two years until May 2015 when 28 persons were arrested and 37 kilos of heroin were seized in Belgium, South Africa and parts of Canada. In January 2016 the RCMP decided to issue a press release on this project, which could lead one to believe that this was a recent success.

Inspector Cal Chrustie one of the RCMP heads of this this project even went as far as to say that “we smashed the distribution and supply networks so significantly that our Liaison officers and partner agencies abroad aren’t seeing any activity there”. [5]

This further underlines the fact that “integrated” investigational teams stressing long-term investigations, using thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars is the focus of the day. (It should be noted that not insignificantly there is no mention made of the cost of this operation but there is little doubt that it was in the millions of dollars)

At the bottom of the story, Chrustie admits that there was only 1 Canadian involved, and there were no charges in Canada.

The other story, which the Police groups called, a press conference for was for Project Tainted, also in 2015, but this one at least was geared to the rapidly growing Fentanyl crisis. This too was a “joint forces operation” involving VPD, RCMP FSOC, and the Burnaby and North Vancouver RCMP and the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU). This too would have to be deemed a success as the usual parade of officers stood in front of the media showing off their seized wares of guns, drugs and bundles of money.  This too was likely a costly operation but you will never know by how much, and of course it was two years ago.

Also interesting recently in court, one of the parties charged in this Projected Tainted was a Walter James McCormick (age 51) who once out on bail got caught again in June 2016. The Crown was asking for an 18-year sentence on McCormick as the Crown argued that because Fentanyl was involved a much harsher sentence was called for. In the McCormick case from 2015  Crown is now arguing 18 years would be a suitable punishment  for trafficking in fentanyl, and of course defence is arguing that they recent media frenzy is being foisted on his client so that the Crown can be seen as taking this seriously. As much as it is a defence argument, it seems obvious that the Crown is pushing this for a political reason.

C/Supt Brian Cantera the current LMD Operations Officer and Assistant District Commander is a former “drug” cop, and an ardent supporter of “integration”.

In an interview with the Vancouver Sun Cantera stated that policing has “to shift to deal with the fentanyl crisis” but then says, “we’re simply not going to arrest ourselves out of this problem.” He says “It comes back to a multi-pronged approach, a multi-pillar approach, where you talk about prevention, education, harm reduction and enforcement”. [6] Have you heard that before?

So where is the Vancouver Police Department in all this, after all this is their physical jurisdiction and they also enforce the Federal CDSA. (Controlled Drug and Substances Act). Vancouver City police have a Drug Section, but like other police agencies do not speak of the number of people in this section. It should be noted that they now too fall under the “Organized Crime Section” of the VPD under Deputy Chief Laurence Rankin. The Organized Crime Section has an Investigations Section and this is where you find the Drug Section. Interestingly enough they do not fall under the “Operations” side of the house of VPD. So it would appear that they too have fallen under the spell of large-scale investigations and organized crime. My guess is that there is no street enforcement coming from Drugs. Any arrests in the area would probably fall to the uniform officers through the course of their other duties.

These long-term multi-agency investigative teams (if in fact there is one dealing with the fentanyl issue in downtown Vancouver) will continue to be the flavour of the day, but don’t be expecting any immediate impact. It may be years before there is another Trump like press conference. So the drugs will continue to flow into the downtown core, often watched by officers sitting in surveillance cars  part of some bigger operation.

On welfare day, the drug dealers will continue to amass outside the money dispensaries and begin to sell out for couple of days in what they must see as an unbelievably lucrative and easy market. And then the overdoses spike and calls for service go through the roof.

However, despite going after McCormick,  the police right now see no advantage in trying to pick off the dealers as they deal on the street in front of everyone. However, it would be more cost effective and maybe we won’t have to wait for 2-3 years for the next press conference claiming success.

Many think that the police have forfeited basic policing for the showy and expensive large operations and that maybe they should re-build at least one pillar of the four. The other three pillars are shaking to the point of collapse.

** By way of an update: Today, January 30th, 2017 the CBC does a report on how to stem the flow of fentanyl which it is agreed is for the most part coming from numerous pharmaceutical companies in China. They quote a 2013 UBC study which stated that the focus should be on harm reduction and not enforcement. That the “war on drugs” had failed. Of course we are now in 2017 and we are now in the middle of a “crisis” . Still Mr Pecknold the director of BC Police Services holds to the line “we are not going to solve this crisis by arresting our way out of it or seizing it at the border…Pecknold said”. Apparently Mr Pecknold doesn’t feel we should be worried about drugs crossing the border either.

Amazing take from the director of Police Services for the Province. He goes on to say the government line that what is needed is “….a co-ordinated response at all levels of government”.  Thanks for the insight.

[1] https://www.hri.global/what-is-harm-reduction

[2] http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/mb/yir-bilan-13-14/message-federal-federale-eng.htm

[3] https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2016PREM0082-001361

[4] https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2016PREM0082-001361

[5] http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/en/gazette/tackling-transnational-organized-crime

[6] http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/bc-police-say-fentanyl-a-game-changer-struggle-to-stop-ovderdoses-on-the-street-1.3762446

Image Courtesy of Kenny Louie via Creative Commons licence some rights reserved

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