When was the last time you jaywalked?

My last time was Monday afternoon. I actually have a reputation for being a bit over-cautious when it comes to traffic safety, yet when I saw a friend on the other side of Pender Street, I flagrantly disregarded Section 12 of the Street and Traffic Bylaw and dashed across the road mid-block to say hello.

Increasing police accountability

Here is another question entirely: when was the last time you were ticketed for jaywalking?

If you’re not a low-income resident of the Downtown Eastside side, the answer is likely never. That is based on new statistics my colleague Doug King recently secured through a freedom of information request. The stats confirmed what many residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside have long suspected, that the Vancouver Police Department is issuing a disproportionate number of tickets to jaywalkers in their neighbourhood. In the last 4 years, 75.5% of the 2735 jaywalking tickets issued on Vancouver were handed out in the Downtown Eastside.

When Pivot and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) released similar statistics earlier this year, which showed that 95% of street vending tickets were give out in the DTES, we were told that it proved nothing except that there are more offences being committed in this neighbourhood.  While we knew from experience that vending happens all over the city, this time, the data no-jaywalking-sign.jpgproving that Jaywalking is not just a DTES issue is readily available as a result of a pedestrian safety project that the City funded VANDU to produce.  The methodology included monitoring the number of pedestrian crossing that involved jaywalking incidents at select locations around the city. At 18%, the DTES locations had the second lowest percentage of jaywalkers of any area monitored. The percentage of crossings that involved jaywalking observed at the two Downtown locations were 23% and 35% of observed Commercial Drive crossings involved jaywalking. We also sent our crack team of interns out to see if jaywalking is still going on all over the city. Check out the video of what they saw.

There is another angle that is used to justify the excessive ticketing of people in the Downtown Eastside. The Downtown Eastside, the story goes, is home to a class of extreme jaywalkers. These super bylaw-offenders jaywalk with such impunity that the police can not possibly turn a blind eye. My mind immediately goes to Commercial Drive (the area with the most jaywalkers and where there has not been a single jaywalking ticket issued in the past four years) where I recently watched a young man jaywalk though heavy traffic while playing a didgeridoo.

In all seriousness, safety issues for pedestrians in the DTES are real. According to a study conducted by researchers at SFU and UBC entitled “Pedestrian Injury and the Built Environment: An Environmental Scan of Hotspots,” 10% of Vancouver’s recorded pedestrian injuries occur the Downtown Eastside. This number is not high enough to explain why 75% of tickets are issued in that area and it does not address the question of whether ticketing is an effective response to concerns about pedestrian safety, but it does point to a real problem. The community safety project suggests that pedestrian safety can be best addressed through education, longer walk signal times, more drug treatment programs, installing crosswalks including mid-block, and slowing/reducing traffic on Hastings Street. As far as we know, there is no research to suggest that bylaw enforcement of jaywalking correlates to an increase in pedestrian safety.

So if it is not the number of jaywalkers, the type of jaywalking, or the fact that ticketing is the only effective means of reducing pedestrian injuries that is driving by law enforcement, why is ticketing happening almost exclusively in the Downtown Eastside?

The answer is that deterring jaywalking (or street-vending or littering) are not the primary purpose of bylaw ticketing in Vancouver. Instead, these ticketing practices are part of a strategy that the Vancouver Police Department’s Strategic Plan calls ‘proactive policing’. As Doug explained in his excellent post on proactive policing earlier this year:

Proactive Policing isn’t new. In fact it’s been around for decades. Basically what Proactive Policing means is that instead of waiting for a criminal call to respond to, or a complaint about a nuisance, you go out there and you try to find it. While that may sound positive at first, experiments in Proactive Policing have often ended in racial profiling and discrimination

The Vancouver Police Department’s 2009 Strategic Plan stated that it would require members on patrol in the Downtown Eastside to make four street checks per block in the Downtown Eastside. During these checks, they would demand identification and run the name of the detainee in their database to see if the person had any outstanding warrants. This provision was later removed after it was pointed out that random street checks were a clear violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but constitutional prohibition against random street checks can be circumvented when an officer gives a ticket for an offence, whether it is jaywalking, littering or spitting.  

For residents who don’t have outstanding warrants, getting caught by this policy of aggressive Bylaw enforcement has huge implications. Downtown Eastside residents face such deep poverty that the individual consequence of a violation ticket is grossly out of proportion to the gravity of the offence. For a person receiving basic welfare (who is not already dipping into their support allotment to pay for housing) a single ticket, which can range from $100 to $167 depending on the nature of the infraction, would amount to between 43% and 71% of their monthly after-rent income.

The major concern we hear about is how ticketing funnels people into a criminal justice feedback loop from which they never escape. Because of their financial situation, they do not pay the ticket, and eventually a warrant is issued. They are arrested on the warrant and given another date to appear in court, they then may miss that date (as a result of homelessness, lack of a phone and other issues in their lives), and are re-arrested when they are ticketed again. An examination of court records has shown that some Downtown Eastside residents have received multiple arrest warrants for failing to appear on bylaw offences, and spent numerous days in jail as a result of those warrants.  

Not only is this a poor use of scarce criminal justice system resources, it has profound public safety implications. For women, as well as homeless people (who are particularly vulnerable to violence), people with mental health issues and other at-risk Downtown Eastside residents, ticketing can become a life or death matter by making them avoid police when they have safety concerns. Wally Oppal, Commissioner of the Missing Women Inquiry explicitly recommended that “the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Department take proactive measures to reduce the number of court warrants issued for minor offences by reducing the number of tickets issued and charges laid for minor offences” in order to address this concern. When the stakes are at their most high, the discriminatory practice of aggressive bylaw enforcement creates harmful animosity between the community and police, and undermines efforts to build a safer community. For that reason alone, the VPD should be re-thinking the human and financial cost of ‘proactive policing’.

We sent our summer intern team out into the downtown core of Vancouver for one hour. Here is the jaywalking they were able to capture on video without any effort at all. How many jaywalkers can you count? How many tickets?