Street Legal

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<b>It&#146;s a dirty job, but someone&#146;s gotta police the police. In Vancouver, Pivot Legal Society is trying to do just that </b>

Trevor Wires* is sprawled on the ground, begging four Vancouver police officers to stop kicking him.

“You got us, please stop!” he yells to the officers who are in the midst of arresting Wires and a friend for auto theft. But instead of stopping, the officers continue to rain “punches and kicks” on the two.

“I begged them to stop,” says Wires. “I was lying face down; I didn’t dare raise my head. The blows were coming from all directions.”

Wires’s story is just one of numerous tales of police abuse that Pivot Legal Society, a non-profit group working in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, has been collecting as part of their Affidavit Campaign.

The campaign is based on a simple idea: Collect the stories of people whose rights have been violated and transcribe them into a legal format. Once the transcription is finished, the person swears before Pivot’s lawyer, John Richardson, that the events described are true. The stories become affidavits that can be used as evidence in a court of law.

As a University of British Columbia law student who volunteers for Pivot, I’ve seen that the affidavit campaign can serve several important functions at once. By documenting stories of police misconduct, the rest of the city can be informed about the horrible abuses happening in our own backyard.

(For those who have never been to Vancouver, the city’s Downtown Eastside is among Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods and is awash in drugs. And the people who live there are among the most marginalized in the city.)

A second function of the campaign, then, is to allow the least heard — those with the least power — tell their side of the story. As a result, the affidavits take on a therapeutic and empowering role.

Finally, by gathering this large body of evidence, it becomes possible to put forward — and back up — the argument that Vancouver’s police department needs to overhaul many of its policing practices.

To be fair, none of Pivot’s affidavits have been used in court to date and, consequently, do not amount to “proof” of any crime. That is for a court to decide. A team of lawyers, however, is currently considering how to use the affidavits in future legal action. Once a legal action is launched, the names of those who have sworn affidavits will be publicly released.

In the meantime, the affidavits I have read contain stories of illegal search-and-seizures, unconstitutional arrests and abuse of power by the police.

Consider Delphi Nguyen, a bystander who was observing police make an arrest. While watching, he swears in his affidavit, an officer told him to, “Get off the street or I’ll throw you in fucking jail.”

After telling the officer to “go fuck himself” and that in Canada citizens have a right to move around as they please, the officer walked across the street and arrested him. When Nguyen asked why he was being detained the officer replied, “for being drunk in a public place, or a nuisance. I’ll think of something.”

Nguyen has epilepsy. While in jail he suffered an attack and passed out. When he awoke, he found himself on the floor, bloodied and shackled outside the cell door. Eventually he was released. He was never given a reason for his arrest.

Then there is the story of the couple shooting heroin in an alley. Two cops walked up, pepper-sprayed them in their eyes and said, “No fixing in the alleys.” No charges were ever laid.

Cam Walker was also not charged when police busted him with $15 worth of heroin. What he did lose, however, was the $740 for his rent. The money was deposited in the police property office even though the arresting officer never bothered to contact Crown Counsel to approve charges.

For people like Walker, whether or not an official charge is laid is the least of their worries. After losing the $740, he told me, he lost his apartment. He was forced to live out of his car as he scrambled for housing.

How is justice served when a $15 drug bust results in a person losing their apartment or when people are otherwise pushed around by police? Yes, many of the people who Pivot has talked to have committed petty crimes, but the current police solution just doesn’t add up to a more just society.

Pivot’s working on changing the equation. They also run a Legal Outreach Program that includes the Rights Card Initiative and Copwatch.

The rights card is a business-size card that spells out a person’s constitutional rights when detained by police. Part of the card, which easily fits in a pocket or wallet, can be ripped off and given to the arresting officer. This way, even people who are unable to read the card themselves can assert their constitutional rights.

To date, several thousand cards have been given out to residents in the Downtown Eastside. Feedback has been great. My favourite story is of the woman who, when detained by police, recited the card by memory. Information contained in the card informs people that they do not have to speak to police when detained and that they have a constitutional right to speak to a lawyer.

Copwatch is a recently launched initiative that is organizing citizens to observe and document police behaviour. The idea is not to interfere with police work but rather to make sure that a person who is being arrested does not have to suffer the same fate as the people who have been swearing affidavits for Pivot.

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