DTES Copwatch perspectives on the new police Independent Investigations Office
By Jennifer Allan
The mandate of the new police Independent Investigations Office (IIO), led by Richard Rosenthal, is to investigate deaths in police custody or police violence causing serious bodily harm. We think Rosenthal was brought in because, in the last ten-years, BC has the highest per-capita number of in-custody deaths in Canada and that’s embarrassing for the government. They want to bring down the number of in-custody deaths and show they’re taking them seriously.
Realistically, this office will not deal with the kind of violence that people in the DTES suffer on a daily basis. To be a meaningful part of ending police violence and harassment in the DTES the Independent Investigations Office complaints process would have to investigate and take all instances of police harassment and brutality seriously and would have to be easily accessible to all DTES residents.
I am the coordinator of Copwatch, an all-volunteer organization of DTES residents and allies which does regular patrols of the streets to monitor police interactions with our community members. We take pictures and reports of police brutality and harassment every day and regularly file complaints through the VPD Professional Standards unit.
The sorts of injuries DTES residents typically receive from police are dislocated shoulders, fractured skulls, bruises and black eyes. For example, in December a man was assaulted by police at the Hazelwood hotel. He was beaten so badly he suffered a fractured skull. Copwatch made a police complaint but it did not make it past the inspector at the Professional Standards section of the VPD. That means the IIO did not accept this DTES resident’s fractured skull as serious bodily harm. The VPD Professional Standards section has said that Copwatch’s complaints about this sort of daily treatment are frivolous. IIO offers no justice or accountability against this daily humiliation and harassment from VPD officers because its mandate does not cover these abuses.
The IIO will not be considering any cases where police have sexually assaulted women, men or trans people. In 2001 PACE interviewed 183 women involved in survival sex work in the DTES and found 7.9% of them experienced sexual assault with a weapon by a police officer. The IIO will not deal with police sexual-violence unless the victim suffers “serious bodily harm” additional to or as part of that sexual assault.
People who are poor, who are oppressed and living in the DTES don’t have the same structures of comfort and protection that other people do. If you’re an Indigenous survival sex worker in the DTES you already feel like you’re a nobody in the eyes of the dominant society. That’s the message of the missing and murdered women; the police won’t help you. And if the police assault you there’s no one to believe you or help you. The IIO isn’t offering any help either.
If I pushed a disabled woman to the sidewalk like the VPD complaints process found Cst. Taylor Robinson did, I would be sent to jail. We have seen the VPD deal with its worst abusive officers the way the Catholic Church deals with its pedophile priests, it moves them away to a new place where no one knows them or their histories.
The DTES needs its own police accountability organization. The DTES is the only neighbourhood in Vancouver with a Beat Enforcement Team (BET), a regular foot-patrol of cops who ticket, harass, and arrest Indigenous and low-income people in our living spaces, sidewalks and parks. The BET cops feel like an occupying army which is in the DTES to look for crime and which looks at everyone on the street as a criminal in-between crimes.
We need an independent investigations office that investigates all complaints against police and takes them all seriously. We need an office that is accessible to the most oppressed people, an office where anyone can drop in and say they have been assaulted, harassed, followed, ridiculed or discriminated against by police.
The investigations process DTES residents need would be part of an overall reform of the policing system and to reform policing means to reform society and take on systemic violence first. DNC’s constitution says we want policing that is controlled by the community and which prioritizes people’s safety over property. We think individual instances of violence are symptoms of systemic and structural violence. That means we need to get rid of the Beat Enforcement Team and have police that are part of our community’s struggle for social justice and against violence.