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'Like urban warfare': Community-led police oversight project launched in Vancouver

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Two community groups in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside have announced a new police oversight project aimed at documenting troubling interactions with law enforcement in the impoverished neighbourhood.

The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society shared details of the initiative – dubbed Police Oversight with Evidence and Research, or POWER – at a news conference Thursday, accusing authorities of taking an increasingly aggressive approach in their dealings with local residents.

"It's like urban warfare out there," said Dave Hamm, one of the leads on the project. "Police are not being held accountable for the ways they behave in the community."

In general, misconduct complaints against the Vancouver Police Department are handled internally, unless otherwise directed by the provincial Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner.

VANDU supervisor Jon Braithwaite said the community has lost faith in the department to hold officers accountable, however, describing the process of having police investigate themselves as one that "feeds corruption."

Asked about the POWER project at an unrelated news conference Thursday, police spokesperson Const. Tania Visintin said she could not comment before reviewing the details of the plan.

She also declined to speak to general concerns around officers' conduct in the neighbourhood.

"If anybody has interaction with the police, they're not satisfied with that interaction, they feel any of their rights have been violated, we do have a complaints process in place," Visintin said.

The Vancouver Police Department declined to provide a more fulsome response to the oversight project when contacted later by CTV News.

B.C. also has a civilian oversight body, the Independent Investigations Office, that's tasked with investigating all police-involved incidents that result in death or serious harm, but POWER noted that since the IIO was founded some 12 years ago, no officer who has contested a charge has ever been convicted.

Members of POWER pointed to a number of recent investigations that have left some Downtown Eastside residents frustrated, including the 2022 crash that left Dennis Hunter seriously injured.

Video showed Hunter had been standing motionless on Hastings Street for at least 10 seconds when a speeding police cruiser without its emergency lights activated slammed into him in the middle of the night, sending him flying through the air.

Following an IIO investigation, Const. Jack Zhao was ultimately fined $2,000 under the Motor Vehicle Act for speeding – a penalty critics at POWER described as a “slap on the wrist.”

Members also expressed concerns about the investigation into the death of Chris Amyotte, an Indigenous man who was killed by police in August 2022, which remains ongoing nearly two years later.

Witnesses said Amyotte had been bear sprayed and was frantically asking bystanders for help before police arrived and ultimately shot him with a beanbag shotgun.

"Whether they do it through physical violence or whether they do it by stories they tell about us, the police de-humanize our community every day and they normalize the deaths and the violence," Hamm said.

"I think we're all kind of numb sometimes from this ourselves, and we said we're not going to be numb anymore."

Leaders of POWER said community members will be invited to a weekly meeting to share accounts of their interactions with police, which will be compiled and publicized.

Details of how that data will be published are still being worked out, according to the group.

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Ben Nesbit 

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