When Proactive Policing Crosses the Line

If you’ve ever taken a look through the numerous By-Laws which have been created by the City of Vancouver’s you’re probably aware that something you have done within the last few hours is illegal. Stepping off the curb too soon, riding your bike to work without a bell, walking your dog without a leash, playing your Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood record too loudly. Most of us go about our day knowing that corners can be cut, By-Laws can be breached, and only once in a blue moon will you be caught, warned, or fined. When it does happen the effect is stinging, but short, and more often that not we look back and realize it was deserved.

The same rules don't apply to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. 

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

If you reside in the Downtown Eastside and look like you don’t live in one of the many high-end condos springing up in the neighbourhood it’s just a matter of time before that ticket enters your hand, and it will come sooner rather than later. 

I don’t want to sound too cynical, because By-Laws certainly do have a purpose, and there are often times when their enforcement is needed, but when we teamed up with VANDU and filled the Pivot office this morning for a press conference it was to make sure members of the media knew that the “purpose” of our City’s By-Laws is different down here. It isn’t about nuisance, or order, or protection, but what the VPD has coined in their 2013 Strategic Plan as “Proactive Policing”.

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, expirements in Proactive Policing have often ended in racial profiling and discrimination. Proactive Policing has most recently reared its head in the southwest United States, where immigration laws were drafted to allow police officers and government officials the ability to ask for identification and proof of citizenship in order to fulfill menial tasks. It is often intrusive, always speculative, and in Vancouver it has found a great friend in the City’s By-Laws.

What VANDU and Pivot have been seeing over the last few years is an increased effort by VPD members to give tickets for By-Law offences in the DTES. When an officer gives a ticket for an offence they are then lawfully allowed to ask for identification, and can use that identification to run the person’s name for warrants that may have been given for outstanding immigration, criminal, or By-Law matters. In many cases the warrants come before a guilty verdict does, and are the result of the ticketing itself.

The effects of this policy are striking. Residents of the DTES live in constant fear of enforcement, and outstanding fines and warrants were recently cited by the final report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry as the primary reason why marginalized people, especially women, do not feel comfortable providing information or seeking assistance from police. Because of this Commissioner Wally Oppal made the following recommendation:

"I recommend 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;
  • Developing guidelines to facilitate greater and more consistent use of police discretion not to lay charges; and
  • Increasing the ways in which failures to appear can be quashed early in the judicial process."

Which brings us back to today. Sadly over the last four years we’ve been given very little evidence to suggest that the VPD intends on putting a stop to their ‘Proactive Policing’ in the neighbourhood, which is why we went ahead and filed a complaint to the Vancouver Police Board asking Mayor Robertson and his Vision Council to step up and put an end to these discriminatory practices. 

It came as no surprise to us that statistics obtained through a Freedom of Information request confirmed our suspicion, that some By-Laws are enforced far more in the DTES than in any other neighbourhood. 


We at Pivot and VANDU believe that equality under the law means that justice should be blind and the laws applied equally to every individual, regardless of their social condition. It's why our organizational motto is 'Equality lifts Everyone'. And if we really want to change the relationship between residents of the DTES and the VPD it is a great place to start. 


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