Police in the park

Last week special prosecutor Richard Peck recommended perjury charges against the four RCMP officers involved in the Taser shooting of Robert Dziekanski on Oct. 14, 2007. Every step of the way, the Dziekanski case has been an example of the need for greater police accountability in British Columbia.  I am glad to see that the public and the government have taken this case and the tragic death of Mr. Dziekanski very seriously and have pushed for the officers involved to be held responsible for their actions both at the time of the incident and during the investigation afterwards. However, building a culture of truly accountable, respectful policing is going to require looking beyond the high profile cases and examining the culture that underlies the countless, seemingly benign interactions between marginalized people and police in this Province everyday.  

Increasing police accountability

Yesterday at the end of the work day, I was talking to a co-worker on a bench in Andy Livingstone Park on the edge of the DTES. On the bench next to us an older man was sitting quietly. Honestly, I hadn’t even noticed he was there as we sat and talked.  Two young male VPD officers we making their rounds through the park, and I finally noticed the man as the two officers walked assertively toward him.

“Are you drinking today?” one office asked loudly, drawing our attention. I couldn’t hear the older man’s response. The officer turned to his partner, “last time he had a big bottle.” The officer proceeded to put on his glove and open up a bag siting next to the man. By this point, we were openly staring at what was unfolding in front of us and could see the bag was empty.  The officer offered showed no sign of being concerned that we were watching what he was up to. We considered intervening but it seemed like it might escalate the situation and they officers looked ready to move on.

As the officers left the man on the bench a middle-aged woman walking two small dogs asked them what had happened. “We thought he was drinking” the office said “he was last time, who knows, he probably was drinking earlier today.”  The officers walked away chatting and laughing with the woman.

What really upset me about the whole situation was that it left me with the sense that the officers didn’t believe the man on the bench had the basic rights that most of us take for granted – the right to be treated with dignity and fairness or even the right to sit quietly on a bench on a sunny afternoon without being searched and made a spectacle of.  Policing is a difficult task and everyday officers are presented with choices that test their resolve and patience.  I am not suggesting that all officers engage with Downtown Eastside residents in such a disrespectful manner, but the incident definitely left me feeling that in spite of police being held to account in some high profile cases over the past several years, there is still a long way to go.