VANCOUVER -- CTV News has learned a Vancouver police officer previously convicted of threatening a business owner is now under review by the VPD and B.C.’s police watchdog for comments made to an overdose prevention advocate.

Const. Deepak Sood was recorded in a confrontation with the executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society over the weekend in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, with the officer saying "I'll smack you" one, and a second recording ending by telling her to “go back to dealing drugs.”

“When he threatened to smack me, I was actually afraid,“ said Sarah Blyth, describing what happened in the moments before that comment.

She says Sood was standing outside the safe consumption site and intimidating drug users who go to the facility at the corner of Columbia and East Hastings to use drugs under the supervision of trained volunteers and staff with overdose antidotes on hand, so she started documenting Sood’s behaviour.

In the first short video, the camera captures Sood’s face and badge number with the "I'll smack you" comment, after which he quickly blocks the lens with a wordless exclamation. The second video captures a terse exchange.

Blyth: "Where do you get off picking on women?"

Sood: "I have no idea idea what you’re talking about. No idea, ma’am. Go back to dealing drugs."

“In this area, officers need to have the highest of compassion, we can’t take officers that have anger issues and put them on the block,” said Blyth. “It’s not right. These folks are vulnerable.”

Vancouver police wouldn’t comment on the matter, beyond confirming Sood is the officer in the recording and saying the incident has been referred to their Professional Standards Section, which has notified the Office of the Police Complaints Commission.

“We are in the process of reviewing the incident to determine next steps,” wrote Deputy Police Complaint Commissioner, Andrea Spindler. “We are awaiting further information from VPD, including whether they will be requesting the Commissioner initiate an investigation before completing our assessment.”

Blyth said she hasn’t submitted the video herself and it’s unclear who made the complaint and submission that triggered the probe; several advocates had posted the video to social media, including Blyth.

The constable remains on active duty.

Sood’s Criminal Code conviction

Sood is the same officer convicted of uttering threats to cause death or bodily harm in a 2018 incident with a furniture store owner in Coquitlam.

“Among other things, over the course of a tirade that went on for a period of hours, Mr. Sood threatened to bring the Dresser back down to the M&M store and throw it through its front window,” reads the court judgement, by judge Thomas Woods, who points out Sood made more than two dozen calls to the company while he was off duty.

“More importantly, Mr. Sood also threatened to ‘bash (Mr. Knudsen’s) f---ing head in.’ When Mr. Knudsen cautioned him that he would have to call the police if such threats were to continue, Mr. Sood replied by identifying himself as a policeman, stating ‘Don’t bother, I am the f---ing police.’”

The 2019 judgement notes Sood had an “unblemished workplace record” at the time and noted he was part of the Beat Enforcement Team in the Downtown Eastside, where “the challenges are extraordinary and call for a particularly sensitive and empathetic kind of police work. To all accounts, Mr. Sood has performed that difficult work in an exemplary way.”

Sood was ultimately handed a conditional discharge and suspended sentence of 12 months.

The judge noted Sood’s expression of remorse seemed genuine, but ordered him to seek counselling that “may include, but is not limited to, anger management counselling.”

Policing in a troubled neighbourhood

Blyth has saved thousands of lives through the Overdose Prevention Society, which started as a simple tent with overdose antidotes and clean needles in the Downtown Eastside in 2016. It was illegal at the time, but safe-injection, low-barrier harm reduction sites are now legal and increasingly common across the country.

Wednesday was the fifth anniversary of the public health emergency declared in British Columbia on the overdose crisis, which has claimed a stunning 7,072 lives. While many of those who’ve overdosed were in working- or middle-class homes, the most visible signs of the epidemic have been in the Downtown Eastside, where open drug use and dealing is not uncommon.

Within that context and the homelessness, poverty and mental illness endemic in the neighbourhood, Blyth describes a generally good relationship with police, though she notes some exceptions.

“There’s a lot of VPD doing a really great job down here, and we work really well with the ambulance and fire department,” said Blyth, nothing that some police have a hardline position against drug use, even though the official departmental policy is not to pursue simple possession charges. “I just think if people have that attitude, they need to check it at home, be professional towards people on the street and just because people are living in poverty doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the utmost respect when you’re dealing with them.”

Vancouver’s chief constable spent years patrolling the Downtown Eastside himself, and is advocating to the federal government for the formal decriminalization of simple possession of hard drugs; the VPD hasn’t actually charged anyone for having small amounts of drugs in more than a decade.

“Vancouver police officers who work in the Downtown Eastside care deeply for the members of the community, they’re more like community-based police officers than they are just apprehending individuals,” insisted Const. Tania Visintin. “Of course we will when the time comes and there’s actual criminal investigations going on.”

She noted that there is a civilian oversight process for residents or bystanders to report any alleged police misconduct in the area.

“The downtown Eastside is a very unique and complex environment,” said Visintin, pointing out the overlapping challenges of drug addiction, homelessness, and mental health. “Those officers that work down there, because it’s such a small area with a few block radius, they know people that live there by name, they know their family, they know the kids of the residents and it’s all about community policing and really helping those people.”

Blyth accepts the department’s leadership is committed to decriminalizing drugs and working with the community, but doesn’t believe that ethos is followed by all frontline officers and she wants to see that change.

“Obviously there’s a lot of bad things that happen down here and there’s dangerous people down here, I would suggest to focus on that and not to focus on the people struggling,” she said. “We need (officers) who can tell the difference between someone who is just getting by during the day and a real criminal and treat people in a kind and compassionate way.”