Why publicly bringing a group complaint against two Vancouver police officers was necessary

(Photo credit: Peter Kim | Officers #3066 and #3108 | September 14, 2018)

We know them as officers #3066 and #3108. Months ago, Pivot staff began hearing stories of mistreatment and abuse stemming from two officers patrolling the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. There was a palpable frustration among community members and frontline service providers who grew increasingly concerned about the conduct they witnessed or heard about. Stories ranged from disparaging, unprofessional conduct to intimidation, and even assault.

Aside from filing formal complaints with the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner (OPCC) there is little recourse against police misconduct committed by the Vancouver Police Department (VPD); and this option, as set out below, is an unreasonable expectation for many living in the Downtown Eastside.

 

In mid-September the Vancouver Police raided the High Hopes kiosk in the Downtown Eastside Market. The service it provided was part of a vital opioid substitution program that was saving lives in the context of a rampant overdose crisis killing thousands across British Columbia.

(Photo credit: Peter Kim | High Hopes kiosk | September 14, 2018)

READ MORE: What’s Up With Those 2 Cops in the DTES

Video of the raid was posted online, and as it went viral on social media we observed an intense reaction, with commenters posting a litany of stories chronicling their own personal negative interactions with the two officers who figured prominently within it.

It became increasingly clear that these two officers were having a far-reaching negative impact on the community and that something needed to be done. It was also readily apparent that many people were afraid to come forward. We, along with the Overdose Prevention Society, held a community safety rally where we invited people to share their own stories of interactions with officers #3066 and #3108.

(Photo credit: Peter Kim | Community safety rally in the DTES | September 2018)

On September 18, we distributed flyers showing their photos and asking community members to come forward the following week to submit a formal complaint as part of a group process to the OPCC. We would have legal volunteers help draft the complaints and provide a safer space for people to tell their stories by way of this communal setting. As people approached the table where we were handing out flyers, the reaction was instant and unmistakable.

READ MORE: Two Vancouver police officers accused of harassment in the Downtown Eastside

Nearly everyone who walked by recognized the officers and had a story to share. These echoed what we had already been hearing: harassment, bullying, and assault. In about an hour we had gone through over 100 flyers and had to rely on a neighbouring organization to photocopy more. The police took issue with this singling out of their officers through a photo; however, it was purposeful and necessary for many reasons:

  • Downtown Eastside residents generally recognize officers by their faces, not their names. This is true for many people, but especially true given that VPD officers routinely refuse to identify themselves by name and only provide badge numbers when asked for identification.
  • The VPD refused to provide us with the officers’ names; therefore, a photo was among the few options we had to identify them and solicit feedback from the community in relation to their conduct.
  • Many members of the Downtown Eastside don’t have computers or smartphones to hear about events taking place. A printable flyer is often the most effective resource for disseminating information to them.

(Photo credit: Peter Kim | Flyer distributed to community members | September 2018)

It was not a “Postering Campaign”

Pivot created the flyers to ensure people knew about the complaint drafting event. We did not set out to have them taped and circulated throughout the Downtown Eastside. This evolved organically from the community, and is evidence of how strongly they felt about the presence and actions of these two officers.

(Photo credit: Facebook | Police looking at complaint flyer | September 2018)

Complaint Drafting Rally

The following week, on September 25, we held the complaint drafting event. We received 22 complaints regarding either one or both officers from community members and service providers. A significant number of these people wanted Pivot to know their stories but were still too concerned about their own personal safety to go through the complaints process.

There were also a number of people who came to us discreetly indicating they still wanted to file a complaint, but felt unsafe doing so during the rally. We have been reaching out to these individuals to arrange one-on-one interviews.

(Photo credit: Peter Kim | Volunteers and supporters at complaint drafting event | September 22, 2018)

The entire process has reinforced a reality that anyone working with or coming from a racialized or otherwise marginalized community already knows: People do not feel safe coming forward to complain about police, nor do they feel safe filing formal written complaints about them. They realize that the officers they are taking issue with will receive a copy of the complaint and the identifying information contained therein. They know those same officers will likely be out on the streets policing them in the future.

At one point during the complaint drafting rally, police parked across the street and began taking photos of the building where individuals entered. How are profoundly marginalized and over-policed communities supposed to feel safe moving through the complaints process when the very officers they are reporting know exactly who they are, and continue to have intense power over their daily lives?

In addition, filing a complaint with the OPCC is a formal process that is often inaccessible and difficult to navigate for those who are street-involved and struggling with substance use or homelessness. For all these reasons, asking someone living in the Downtown Eastside to file a formal complaint against their alleged abuser is an unreasonable and onerous expectation.

Finally, the complaint process has a very poor record of holding officers accountable. Navigating its bureaucracies is time consuming and rarely results in disciplinary action. According to statistics provided by the OPCC, the Vancouver Police Department was subject to 522 complaints in 2016/17. Only three led to internal discipline.

Improving police accountability

(Interactive Graph)

Pivot is now finalizing all the complaints that have been gathered both during the event and afterwards. In the coming weeks we will be submitting them formally to the OPCC and seeking justice for the people of the Downtown Eastside who were courageous enough to come forward.

Through this action we also hope to make the onerous and bureaucratic complaints process more accessible for members of marginalized communities who are often of limited means yet disproportionately affected by police violence. These individuals deserve justice and must be able to hold police to account without risk of retaliation and intimidation.

Note: we will be updating this post as developments happen through the OPCC complaint filing process.