Chief says officers won’t use the clout given to them under new provincial legislation
By Doug Ward,
Vancouver SunDecember 8, 2009
Vancouver’s police chief said Monday that his officers won’t use powers under new provincial legislation to physically force homeless people sleeping outdoors in extreme weather into shelters.
Chief Jim Chu said Monday that VPD members will instead use “minimal, non-forceful touching” in rare circumstances to persuade people to accept transportation to shelters.
Chu said such physical contact would be equivalent to offering a hand to an elderly person crossing a street.
VPD officers will back off if their efforts are met with “overt resistance,” he added.
Housing Minister Rich Coleman, architect of the Assistance to Shelter Act, which gives police the right to bring the homeless to shelters against their will, could not be reached for comment.
Coleman’s ministry issued a statement that accepted Chu’s decision, but predicted the VPD will toughen its stance once the legislation’s regulations are completed later this month.
“The policy that the VPD has put in place appears to be a reasonable interpretation of the Act, and we’re confident the VPD will strengthen their policy once the Province’s regulations under the Act are in place.”
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson backed Chu’s position.
“I’ve had some concerns about the Act, and the VPD’s draft policy addresses them — specifically around the use of force,” Robertson said in a statement to media.
Chu’s interpretation of the legislation “achieves a balance between respecting individual rights and helping protect people from extreme weather,” he said.
Chu, at a press conference, sidestepped questions about why he had declined to use the full powers of the legislation.
“The Assistance to Shelter Act has the intent of making it safe for people in extreme weather conditions and that’s our goal as well,” said Chu.
The VPD’s response to the new provincial legislation needs to be approved by the Vancouver Police Board at a meeting Wednesday, he added.
Critics have attacked the legislation as draconian, warning that Victoria wants to use it to clear Vancouver streets of the homeless during the 2010 Olympic Games.
Minister Coleman has said the legislation was designed to prevent homeless people from dying in extremely cold weather, citing the death a year ago of a Vancouver woman in a fire she started to keep warm in below-zero temperatures.
Victoria Police Chief Jamie Graham and RCMP deputy commissioner Gary Bass have endorsed the legislation, which became law three weeks ago.
Chu said that “non-forceful touching” will only occur if the homeless person is at risk of “imminent serious injury or death.” And physical contact will only be made after verbal attempts to persuade the homeless to move indoors have failed.
“We have always taken extraordinary steps to safeguard and shelter the homeless and will continue to do so as one of our top priorities.”
Chu said that VPD officers will continue to follow current policy of offering blankets, warm clothing, snacks, information about shelters and, in some cases, transportation to shelters.
He noted that other laws already give police the power to bring people to shelters if they are under 19 years of age, intoxicated, in need of medical attention or fit criteria under the Mental Health Act.
Chu’s comments were applauded by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which has described the legislation as an unnecessary violation of individual rights. Policy director Micheal Vonn said the VPD probably wants to avoid the controversy and likely legal challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that would occur if officers began forcing homeless people into shelters.
“Effective policing always requires negotiations, relationship building and the minimal use of force and only when absolutely necessary. It’s heartening to have Chief Chu reiterate those principles.”
NDP MLA Jenny Kwan said Chu’s statement shows that police don’t need the Assistance to Shelter Act to help homeless people during cold temperatures. “The police are saying that they already have the tools in place.”
Kwan added that the legislation has had the “unintended consequence” of driving some homeless people further underground in order to avoid being picked up by the police. “The legislation just makes it more unsafe for a group of people that are very marginalized.”
On the city streets Monday night, many homeless people said they believe the law takes away their freedom.
Chris Jensen, 51, standing outside a bottle depot near Terminal Avenue, said the law “sucks,” adding he would refuse to stay in a shelter.
Dressed in a toque and layers of clothes, Jensen was perched on a bike he uses to haul his possessions and the cans and bottles he collects to return to the depot.
He has lived by himself on the streets for 20 years. A self-confessed drug addict, he doesn’t care much for hanging out with other people. He just wants to be left alone, he said.
Jensen entertains himself at night by finding a doorway with enough light to read a science fiction novel. He stays warm with blankets, tarps and cardboard. He also has a propane heater.
“I know it’s dangerous. But I am very careful.”
When asked what he will say to officers if they try to put him in a shelter on a cold night, the mild-mannered Jensen said he would comply, but then leave the shelter straight away.
“I don’t like being around people in confined spaces,” he said. “Besides, if you stay inside too long you get addicted to TV,” he added, with a chuckle.
Simon Stevens, 47, who has been living in various homeless camps and under bridges since 1979, said he wouldn’t go to a shelter either. He said the legislation was like “martial law” and feels it is his right to stay where he is.
“It’s taking away our freedom of choice,” he said. “Cold weather isn’t a problem here. Tarps are good for keeping the wind out.”
email@example.com with files from Tiffany Crawford,
The habits have changed at night with watching a downloaded show once in a while or just put my head down and sleeping. I’m out like a light most nights, however there are those nights with treats, which drag the night out. Getting old means you slow down in many ways, even my drug habit has slowed.
I say what is up with that?
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