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Mayor and police board dismiss DTES complaint of discriminatory ticketing

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Vandu

Last week the Vancouver Police Board voted to dismiss a joint complaint filed in March 2013 by VANDU(Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) and Pivot Legal Society. The complaint was based on a freedom of information request revealing that up to 95% of Vancouver’s vending by-law tickets are given out in the Downtown Eastside (DTES).

Pivot and VANDU called on the police to implement the recommendations of the Murdered and Missing Women’s Inquiry, which called on the VPD stop the disproportionate ticketing of poor, homeless, and under-housed residents in the DTES.

Immediately after the Mayor’s decision, PIVOT announced that it will be filing an appeal with Office of Police Complaints Commission. PIVOT and VANDU will also continue with their constitutional challenge against the City’s vending by-law. According to Pivot lawyer Doug King, the challenge will be heard in the courts next Spring, 2014.

On Tuesday, September 17th, a delegation of 45 members from VANDU appeared at the Police Board meeting to deliver their testimony. Laura Shaver, Vice-President of VANDU, called on the Mayor and Police Board to reject the practice of targeted ticketing in the DTES. The board and the public also heard a testimony from Louise Lagimodiere, a 70-year old Indigenous woman who is currently facing two tickets for vending in the DTES. “I do vending because I need money to survive,” she told the room of supporters.

Before the decision, VANDU president David Hamm told Basics News, “Most people in our neighbourhood don’t have yards. We are very poor people, trying to survive in really difficult economic times and we are being criminalized for it. If this was really about stolen goods or drug dealing, as the police claim, there are laws on the books to deal with those issues. For us it seems like they are just criminalizing poor people trying to survive.”

Numbers whitewashed

The VPD’s report to the Vancouver Police Board dismisses the Pivot/VANDU complaint on the grounds that the data in the FOI (freedom of information) request from this past March contained a “methodological error.” The report claims that new data extraction methodology (termed the “wildcard” method) is more accurate than the numbers previously released.

The main conclusion, based on the new data extraction, is that the number of by-law tickets given out in the DTES has decreased since 2008. At a first glance, the interpretation gives reason for relief. A closer scrutiny shows that the conclusions are based on selective interpretation of the statistics. The majority of the data comparisons use 2008 as a base-year, even though it is well known that 2008 was an exceptional ticketing year with a pre-Olympic ticketing blitz in December. Between 2007 and 2008, the number of tickets given out in the DTES doubled.[1] The relative change in the number of tickets issued would be almost non-existent if an average ticket year was used instead of 2008 (such as 2007 or 2009). Using the highest year as a base-year for comparison is a common and easily-recognizable manipulation of statistics.

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VANDU members added that the VPD’s analysis or conclusions does not in any way address the proportion of tickets given out in the DTES relative to the rest of the city. The Mayor and VPD’s dismissal of the complaint was justified on the basis that it is reasonable for more tickets to be given out in the DTES because the neighborhood has the highest concentration of police, including a dedicated foot patrol. Page 8 of the report reads: “[I]t is reasonable to assume that more offences such as jaywalking or street vending will be observed if there are more officers walking on the street in a concentrated area.”

Traffic accidents — natural or preventable?

According to the latest statistics from the VPD, the DTES still has the highest number of pedestrians struck per square kilometer. The report comments that the high proportion of traffic accidents is a natural phenomenon: “Anyone who has visited the DTES can observe that the behaviour of jaywalkers is markedly different than typically seen in other areas, in terms of the complete lack of caution in wandering into traffic mid-block or against a red light in the most unsafe manner, despite the proximity of marked crosswalks and controlled intersections.”

This reasoning was also prominent in the VPD’s public position against the 30km speed zone along Hastings. Since then the speed limit has been introduced by the City thanks to the activism of VANDU in their years-long struggle for improved pedestrian safety and against the criminalization of jaywalkers. Pedestrian traffic incidents have decreased as a result, but a lot of work remains to be done, according to Dave Hamm.

VANDU members argued that traffic and pedestrian safety measures contained in the final report of VANDU’s City-funded Pedestrian Safety Project have not been fully implemented. In her speech to the police board, Laura Shaver stated the new speed-reader installed at Gore and Hastings regularly shows cars driving faster than the posted limit. “The police are spending so much time on vending and jaywalking tickets that they forgot to enforce the speed limits on the cars that are hitting and killing people.”

Disproportionately ticketing the poor

The joint VANDU and Pivot complaint was concerned not only with the absolute number of tickets issued, but with the disproportionate ticketing of DTES residents relative to the rest of the city. The VPD’s “enhanced” data validates this complaint of systemic discrimination, confirming that an inordinately disproportionate number of tickets are still given out in the DTES.

The disproportionate ticketing of the low-income community is further apparent when looking at the number of tickets given out in the relatively small Beat Enforcement Team (BET) area in the heart of the DTES. The BET area stretches along the Hastings corridor between Gore and Cambie. The report claims that street vending by-law tickets have decreased by 16% in the BET when compared to 2008, and that jaywalking tickets decreased by 57% when compared to the number written in the BET patrolled area in 2008. But yet the report fails to make any analysis or defence of the city-wide proportion of the number of tickets issued.

Both the proportion and absolute number of jay-walking and street vending tickets shows that the percentage of tickets given out in the BET has been steady and high since 2008. On average, 68% of jaywalking tickets and a staggering 92% of street vending tickets have been given out in the BET area between 2008 and 2012. This significant differential in tickets points to blatant discriminatory practices that the VPD and Robertson show no interest in addressing directly.

In terms of absolute numbers, the new data reaffirms that 2008 was an exceptional ticketing year in the BET area, with over 600 tickets given out that year after a December ticketing blitz. Since 2009, there has been an average of 300 jaywalking tickets per year in the BET. Compare this to the average of 11 jaywalking tickets per year (2008-2012) in district 3, or the average of 7 jaywalking tickets have been given out per year (2008-2012) in the rest of East Vancouver (excluding DTES).

With regard to pan-handling tickets, the report states that “only 9% of all panhandling tickets have been issued in the BET area in 5.5 years.” This statistic is not surprising and should not be a cause for celebration, given that most pan-handlers who live in the DTES do not panhandle in the DTES. Most panhandlers leave the neighbourhood when they panhandle. Panhandling tickets are always discriminatory regardless of where they are given. The Cromwell-era panhandling bylaw, which allows for fines up to $2,000, specifically targets homeless and poor people who have to resort to begging for survival.[2]

The data on panhandling tickets is based on the number of tickets given under the provincial Safe Streets Act and excludes tickets given under the municipal street and safety bylaw. As a result, the data used by the VPD may be a significant underestimate of the number of panhandling tickets given in the City of Vancouver each year. This points to a larger issue of police discretion, given the complex web of provincial and municipal bylaws granting police nearly unchecked discretion in managing ‘street disorder.’ The concern, as VPD constable Gil Pruder put it, is that unchecked police discretion can turn anything, including “contempt of cop,” into a punishable offense.

Evidence against criminalization

The VPD claims that the purpose of by-law enforcement is to “change behaviour that puts people at risk.” In aninterview with the Vancouver Sun, city councillor Kerry Jang maintains that “the tickets remain an important educational tool for police to try to change dangerous behaviour.” This kind of regressive logic obscures the socio-economic reasons for street vending, jaywalking and panhandling.

In response to the VPD board dismissal, Aiyanas Ormond, who also spoke on behalf of VANDU, called for an evidence-based approach to public health and by-law enforcement in the DTES. “We have been asking for evidence since 2009, which means that four years have passed with no evidence-based indicators that jaywalking tickets reduce incidences of jaywalking,” according to Ormond. “There are numerous evidence-based approaches that still have not yet been implemented.”

The majority of tickets that have been handed out in the last four years have had significant negative impacts on the lives of those targeted. In addition to being forced through extended court procedures, the tickets have made it harder for people to get loans, set up phone plans, renew drivers licenses, and get car insurance, among other things. By-law ticketing also expands police contacts with the residents of the DTES, increasing the opportunity for racial and class based profiling, leaving many residents to feel they live under constant police surveillance. Similar to other “stop and frisk” policies the world over, targeted policing leads to increased police searches, increasing arrests in the community, and the criminalization of residents.

 

NOTES

[1] Philip Boyle and Kevin D. Haggerty, “Civil Cities and Urban Governance: Regulating Disorder for the Vancouver Winter Olympics,” Urban Studies, 2011, vol. 48, issue 15

[2] Catherine Chesnay, Céline Bellot and Marie-Eve Sylvestre, “Taming Disorderly People One Ticket at a Time: The Penalization of Homelessness in Ontario and British Columbia,” Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 2013, Vol. 55, No. 2

 

 

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