The war in Strathcona…

In a recent foray into the Main and Hastings corridor, an area known to this blogger for over 30 years, it was truly shocking to see the level of human desperation which continues to consume that area. What have we to show for the last decades of effort? Seemingly nothing. A whole community is under siege and burning before our very eyes. The area known as Strathcona is gradually being swallowed whole by an industrial level of drugs and the suffocating undercurrent of violence. Mental anguish and conflict layered on top of excruciating poverty.

This despite 30 years of a victim centric infrastructure which has been created, developed and now maintained by myriad levels of social workers, housing advocates, drug counsellors, medical staff, firefighters, police, sanitation workers and all those academics that like to “study” the problem. The advocates of all stripes have been continually moving in and out of these garbage strewn streets and alleyways, pausing long enough to relay their latest theory on how to correct this miasma of despair. Playing in the background, on some sort of victimization verbal loop, is the ever constant narrative of the “oppressed”, the “downtrodden” and the “unable to fend for themselves”.

It is scary place. It is depressing, but it is equally disgusting that in a country as bountiful as Canada, that this monument to everything that ails this society, stands in proud defiance.

Where has it all gone so wrong? Millions and millions of dollars expended in this apparent never-ending war on a drug fuelled mental health epidemic. It is a magnet which draws from all over the country. A bizarrely twisted tourist attraction, for all the wrong reasons. A place where even the hardened from other cities are truly taken aback at such a level of lawlessness and depravity.

Drastic and innovative action is clearly long overdue. Not innovation designed by the leftist victim advocating culture wing of our society, but by some with a modicum of common sense and where individual responsibility becomes part of the solution.

But the very first step, desperately needed and absolutely essential, is an honest managerial and expenditure review. A macro look over decades of funds and governmental decisions. A far reaching and inclusive appraisal of what has been spent and the effectiveness of those expenditures and the managers who have been overseeing the policies and processes for years.

The Washington Post recently unveiled a sweeping story sourced by thousands of pages of information which looked at the true cost of the war in Afghanistan. One can not help but be taken by the many parallels to what seems to be a similar story about the the war zone at Hastings and Main.

What the Washington Post and others found was that the war and the efforts of the Americans and the many other countries, including Canada, in Afghanistan has proven to be not just a failure, but a failure of epic proportions. It’s worth looking at their findings.

It was in 2001 that President George Bush announced the first military action in Afghanistan with the goal to disrupt terrorist operations and attack the Taliban. Today, eighteen years later, the Taliban control much of the country and are killing Afghan security force members sometimes in the hundreds per week. Even though the leadership of the Taliban moved to Pakistan, they have now expanded into Yemen, northern Africa, Somalia and Syrian.

Over $10 billion was spent on counternarcotics. Despite this, Afghanistan remains the source of over 80% of the global supply of heroin. Before the war the Afghanistan government had almost completely eradicated opium when the actual Taliban were in power. Opium production has now quadrupled.

They spent $87 billion to train Afghan military and police forces yet today no one believes that the Afghan military could support themselves. The army is continually fighting desertion and casualties making them replace over a third of their Forces every year.

War related spending has doubled the size of the Afghan economy but the current rate of unemployment is 25%. Corruption in all its forms still runs rampant.

$30 billion was spent on infrastructure and reconstruction. Most of that money has been considered “wasted”. The Inspector General documented over $15.5 billion lost to fraud and abuse between 2008 and 2017.

$500 billion on interest to finance the war spending, as all the monies have been borrowed which will take years to pay.

Over $1.4 trillion will be spent on veterans that fought in post 9/11 wars by 2059. About $350 billion has already gone to medical and disability care for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are estimating the total spending bill for the medical problems, over the next 40 years, to amount to another $1trillion.

Afghanistan remains one of the largest sources of refugees and immigrants.

What has this got to do with all of us? It demonstrates the problem when incremental spending and single narratives are accepted as gospel and when the problem is allowed to fester year after year. It demonstrates the need for a great big spotlight to be shone on this smaller version of Afghanistan. Not a study by an interest group that continually circles the DTES, but an independent study, independent of all who have been part of the thirty years of problems.

The usual self-described experts always avail themselves to the cameras and microphones, to riff or to lecture the rest of us on what they believe is the cause of the problems. They have no shortage of people to blame, but that blame seems to stop short of any introspection.

The Libby Davies or Jenny Kwans, or the Pivot Legal Society do not need to be consulted in this proposed study. Their versions are already clear and predictable. They are always pointing to some level of government not providing “more”. The money being demanded is an endless request which re-invents itself with another justification, in one form or other, for the next year.

Money clearly is the common cure all whether you are asking the firefighters or the housing advocates.

Each agency demands annual funding, taking credit for successes which go unchallenged or doesn’t seem to reflect the reality.

There have been studies and counter-studies over this continuum. The studies, like the DTES many services often operate in silos and not always in a singular approach.

Donald McPherson, is a typical example. The former drug policy co-ordinator for the city of Vancouver (who now heads another Drug Policy Coalition) talks about the 10 year plan outlined in the Vancouver Agreement in 2000. It was designed to improve housing and social welfare. He blames the collapse on the Harper government.

Mr. McPherson in this proposed future study should also be ignored.

Governments themselves have come and gone, each offering up their particular version of what is needed. Liberals and NDP equally share responsibility for these disastrous results. None of them take the time to look in the mirror.

On one side of the ledger, groups like the BC Centre for Disease Control takes credit for saving 3000 lives between April 2016 and December 2017.

On the other side of that account is that 2177 people also died in this Province during this time.

There is no shortage of positive spin.

Twenty-three operating supervised injection sites claim to have saved 230 deaths. The overall goal of these sites is to decrease “needle sharing”. Their “observational studies” dutifully report favourable results. Their evidence is that fewer people are “injecting in public”. Anybody walking down Hastings may disagree.

The annual operating cost for the injection sites alone is $ 2,948,101.

The injection sites define “saving lives” and count those that have been treated by “agonist treatment” or “opioid replacement” treatment where the people get put on a methadone program.

Meanwhile those running the Needle Exchange program say that Insite is exaggerating the numbers.

In 2017, 60,000 naloxone kits were distributed. At roughly $70 apiece that works out to about $4.2 million this year just on the kits.

Health officials claim that through their services that they have saved “hundreds of lives” but the numbers often vary according to the individual study quoted. The dearth of agreed upon results and the fact that there is a lot of self-reporting remains one of the major roadblocks to any comprehensive study.

But the fail safe fallback to any counter-argument is the oft quoted maxim that “even one life saved” means that their programs can be deemed a “success”.

On the negative side of the ledger.

Calls to Oppenheimer Park in 2019 for the Vancouver City Police have increased over 50%. Shots fired calls have increased over 800%, weapons calls have increased 300% and assaults in progress are up over 17%.

Vancouver City police estimate the policing costs for Oppenheimer park encampment are over a million dollars so far this year. That is for an encampment of about 100 people in amongst the 2700 estimated homeless in the area.

Meanwhile the BC Centre for Substance Abuse and the University of British Columbia in a recent study argued that the police need to stop policing the DTES because it leads to drug users fearing the police, intimidated, and being harassed by the police.

How did they come to this conclusion: they interviewed 72 persons in the DTES and spent 200 hours hanging around overdose prevention sites. They feel police shouldn’t be checking for drugs, or running persons for warrants and such minimal breaches of the law.

What is not answered is how do they propose that we “de-criminalize” if the people are still doing criminal acts?

In the last five years the number of break-ins to vehicles has doubled to 6538 incidents in the Strathcona area alone.

Vancouver City Police records show in 2018 there were 666 assaults and 68 robberies in the Strathcona area.

In the single month of June 2019 in this small geographic area there were 70 assaults, 106 thefts from vehicles, 11 robberies and 31 break-ins to businesses and residences.

To add insult to injury the number of homeless has increased from 2181 people last year to 2223 this year.

Like the war in Afghanistan over 18 years have now gone by since Mr. McPherson’s study in 2000.

Does anyone doubt that during this time there have been misuses of funds, fraud and corruption? Does anyone believe that governments are providing a full accounting of the costs?

Maybe, just maybe, government spending for more counsellors, housing or drugs is not the answer.

Maybe, it is unjustifiable, or maybe an alternative to a policy of more of the same is out there somewhere.

However, it is difficult to contemplate any alternative which does not include forced rehabilitation; or removal from the core (sorry Pivot Legal Society).

The only way to honestly answer is to see the entire package of funds and resources which have been expended over the many years; the layers of government action and in-action; the levels of bureaucracy; the levels of private industry and the number of social housing models which have been proposed and tried over the decades.

The results may be shocking, but nothing less than a Royal Commission level of study is needed. Just as importantly, it must all be seen by a fresh set of eyes–eyes from outside the DTES, eyes with no vested interest in the promulgation of the current norm.

The first thing is the most difficult admission, especially for those that have toiled under the most trying of circumstances with the best of intentions, is the admission that as of today, it has all been a massive failure. On a small scale, this may be our Afghanistan.

*All crime statistics are from the Vancouver City Police records, as reported by the Vancouver Courier.

Photo courtesy of Dan Toulget of the Vancouver Courier – Some Rights Reserved

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.







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