Example 1: Collecting affidavits to document illegal policing actions

Example 1: Collecting affidavits to document illegal policing actions 

Project Type: Advocacy

The Organization

Pivot Legal Society
Vancouver, Canada
E-mail:  getinvolved@pivotlegal.org
Website:  www.pivotlegal.org

Report:  To Serve and Protect: A Report on Policing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Pivot Legal Society focuses its work on marginalized populations that live in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). Believing that equality lifts everyone, Pivot employs legal, political and community outreach techniques to promote health and drug policy, protect sex workers’ rights, advance accountable policing, reverse homelessness and create meaningful employment opportunities. In their own words, they are “building a movement for a just society, where dignity, fairness and compassion are firmly rooted in the law.”

The Problem

Vancouver’s DTES faces a public health emergency. Residents in DTES face high rates of injection drug use and poverty, a growing sex trade, higher morbidity rates for HIV/AIDS, and skyrocketing violence. In 2002, while Vancouver did recognize the public health emergency in DTES, it combated the homelessness, drug use and sex trade with increased policing efforts. The increased policing resulted in poorer public health outcomes, higher numbers of civil liberty offenses, and a rising frequency of illegal policing actions. In this climate, Pivot calls for improved monitoring and enforcement of police actions, increased access to the complaint system, a public inquiry and a general end to the selection of those who live on society’s margins in Vancouver’s DTES for the infliction of special punishment.

Actions Taken

John Richardson, lawyer, founder and, at that time, executive director of Pivot, began to collect affidavits from residents of the DTES. The goal was to document police misconduct against people who use drugs in the DTES. Over a period of nine months, Mr. Richardson worked with volunteer lawyers and law students from the University of British Columbia collecting affidavits from residents who responded to requests for affidavits made by announcements at public events, through distributed pamphlets and by a word of mouth campaign. The participants did not receive any compensation or any promise of future aid. Although designed by Mr. Richardson, the program was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s work in 1917 with peasant farmers in Bihar, India.

The affidavits revealed impressive but quite regrettable statistics. Twenty-two witness statements and 39 victim statements reported 50 incidences of police misconduct in the DTES. Of the 39 victim statements, 26 victims reported whether they used drugs. Twenty-one of those 26 reported that they used drugs. Therefore, the affidavits revealed an apparent and particularly troubling tendency of the police to inflict punishment on drug users in Vancouver’s DTES.

Results and Lessons Learned

The affidavits were a success. They drew the public’s attention to the problem of police misconduct in the DTES and catalyzed a change in policing policy in the DTES. Some of the tangible results were:

In response to the published affidavits, retired BC Judge Josiah Wood audited Vancouver’s Police Department and made recommendations similar to Pivot’s. The Police Department implemented some reforms including an improved seized property handling policy and more stringent note-taking procedures for police officers.

Examples of Documented Violations of International Obligations

Torture. Police beat those they suspected of using drugs. 12 affidavits report incidents meeting the legal definition of torture, including broken bones or teeth, head and brain injuries, flesh wounds and dog bites.

Discrimination. Arrests and detentions based on ethnicity. Police refuse to aid suspected drug addicts.

Freedom of Movement. Police order DTES residents out of a neighborhood. “They searched through all my stuff. When they saw that I didn’t have any drugs on me, they told me to ‘get out of Vancouver.”

Arbitrary Arrest/Detention. Police “jack-up” suspected drug addicts (arbitrary detention without arrest).

Bodily Integrity. Police removed a suspected drug dealer’s pants on the street. Strip searches conducted as a matter of policy when newly arrested individuals arrive at jail.

Privacy. Police raid the home of a suspected drug user without evidence or judicial authorization. Unlawful seizure of property owned by suspected drug user/dealer.

Lack of Medical Treatment in Jail. People are denied access to medical treatment or their medications while in the Vancouver jail.

In 2007, five years after Pivot conducted its affidavit campaign, the new chief of the Vancouver Police Department issued a formal apology, which recounted a number of acts of police misconduct. The police department disciplined officers and made 16 major policy and procedural changes.

In 2011, the provincial government implemented an Independent Investigations Office which will receive individual complaints against police departments.

The affidavit campaign did have problems, however, particularly with regards to barriers to participant participation. Women were particularly underrepresented in the campaign because of their special vulnerability to exploitation, addiction, poverty and violence. Moreover, as noted in Pivot’s report, the general DTES population had a lower than optimal participation rate due to a participant’s lack of time; fear of retribution from police officers who may target them as a result of the affidavit; belief that time spent giving the affidavit could be better spent trying to get money to buy drugs; a preference to forget about the incident; feeling that they deserved police mistreatment as a consequence of their drug use; concern that swearing information could be used to incriminate them; a lack of faith in the legal processes combined with a disbelief that reporting misconduct would will lead to any redress; and a belief that the police will lie about the incident while the affiant will not be believed because they are a drug addict and/or have a criminal record.