B.C. police chiefs convinced other top cops to change course on hard drugs
VANCOUVER -- Years spent policing in Vancouver’s most troubled neighbourhood convinced two of the region’s most influential police officers to reconsider their approach, and they’ve now convinced other police chiefs across the country to advocate for the decriminalization of simple possession of hard drugs.
Both Vancouver’s chief constable, Adam Palmer, and Abbotsford police chief Mike Serr spent years in uniform on the Downtown Eastside where they saw first-hand that cracking down on drug users didn’t solve anything.
Those experiences led to Palmer and Serr to urge their colleagues to speak with one voice on the need to change course when it comes to the nation’s drug policies and approach.
"If you arrest someone on possession of a drug, that's a very short-term action that doesn't provide any sort of solution,” said Palmer, who remembers first questioning the efficacy of low-level enforcement as early as 2007.
“Whereas if we have someone and we can get them into a pathway of treatment, get them proper supports, then you have longer term benefits," said Palmer.
For Serr, who spent 25 years with the VPD before going to Abbotsford Police, it was a moment of epiphany that changed his perspective.
"I very distinctly remember in about 1994 walking the beat, walking the south lane of Hastings and seeing a sex-trade worker I'd had many dealings with – about to shoot heroin,” Serr said.
“At the time we took away her drugs, we didn't charge her – but I'll never forget that moment is when I knew that this person was going to be revictimized,” he recalled.
“They weren't getting the help they needed, but in order to be able to get the drugs they needed they were going to have to go out and be put in a very dangerous situation, and I remember even very early on in that time [thinking] that there had to be a better way.”
Palmer, who is president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, acknowledges that in Vancouver, where police focus on drug dealers and producers rather than individuals with illicit drugs for personal use, their policies and enforcement mean the city already has de facto decriminalization – which took many other police chiefs and leaders a long time to accept as a more effective approach.
“Back in 2003 when we got the first [safe injection site] down on East Hastings Street, I remember people across Canada used to think we were crazy in Vancouver – and there's probably a lot of things over the years that people have looked at Vancouver historically and though ‘what are you guys doing out west there’ – but over time people realized that the old traditional ways of doing things weren't really working,” explained Palmer.
"In the past few years we've had a different generation of police leaders across the country.”
There are now 49 safe injection sites across Canada.
Premier John Horgan was fully supportive of the police chiefs’ position, which has long been held by many researchers and health officials like Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Horgan said he’s hopeful the federal government will make the legislative changes to drug laws that would support services and supports for drug users, while continuing to pursue investigations and criminal charges against drug producers and distributers.
“Anything we can do to reduce the deaths and to reduce the dependence — and quite frankly, free up law enforcement to do other things — I support,” said Horgan.
“If not now, when? We’re in the midst of a global pandemic when it comes to COVID-19. In British Columbia that is further complicated by an overdose crisis which saw last month, the highest number of deaths we’ve seen in a good long time.”
Serr leads the CACP’s special-purpose committee on the decriminalization of illicit drugs. Committee members have visited 10 countries to scrutinize their policies, with Portugal, New Zealand and Norway standing out for their innovative and effective policies.
The report the committee is sending to Ottawa for consideration describes substance use disorder as a public health issue, and recommends police focus on organized crime and illegal production and importation.
Serr acknowledged the resistance within the policing community and Canadian society at large over the idea of decriminalizing hard drugs – but believes an evolution is underway.
"Really when we started seeing the change, in 2016 to the end of 2019 – we've seen over 15,000 Canadians die from overdose death and here in B.C. … it's been almost 5,500,” said Serr.
“These are families, these are fathers, mothers, sons and bothers. The stories Chief Palmer and I hear on a daily basis are tragic and what we learned was what we were doing wasn't effective.
“We needed, as leaders, to come up with a better, more effective way to manage this.”