VANCOUVER – A legal advocacy organization on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is circulating flyers with pictures of two police officers and asking if anyone has been harassed by them.
Lawyer Anna Cooper says the Pivot Legal Society became aware of allegations made against the officers after a video circulated that shows them seizing marijuana from a booth run by a program that offers the drug as an alternative to opioid users in the neighbourhood, one of the poorest in Canada.
“We started to see a lot of stories online and hear a lot of stories directly about how those particular officers had a long history of being extremely abusive toward individuals living, surviving and working in that community,” Cooper said.
Tom Stamatakis, president of the Vancouver Police Union, condemned the poster campaign as “adversarial and confrontational.”
“Unfortunately, the actions by Pivot only succeed in inflaming a difficult situation, particularly by recklessly identifying the officers and providing an incomplete narrative about the incident,” he said in a statement. “While our officers are public figures who understand their actions come under public scrutiny, this sort of identification potentially has broad consequences, both for the officers and their families.”
Pivot Legal Society and the Overdose Prevention Society set up a table Tuesday distributing the flyers, asking anyone with allegations to come forward. Cooper said using a photo was the only way community members would know which officers were in question. The officers are not named on the flyers.
“We had dozens of people tell us they had negative experiences with the officers,” she said.
The range of allegations that are being made is broad, ranging from rude or threatening behaviour to “roughing people up,” she said.
Cooper said the complaints will likely be brought to the chief of police and the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner. None of the allegations have been tested in a complaint review process.
She said she didn’t want to release details of the allegations until they are formalized as a complaint next week.
“Even if all they were doing was treating people in extremely hostile, condescending, rude and disrespectful ways, that should not be acceptable to the Vancouver Police Department, not only because they should expect more from their officers but because that’s bad policing,” she said.
“They need to be working with this community around community safety. These activities undermine that relationship and any possibility of working together.”
The Vancouver Police Department declined an interview request Thursday.
Police spokesman Sgt. Jason Robillard told a news conference Wednesday that the department was aware of the posters but he didn’t know if any official complaints had been filed.
“We are a public office so you can take our picture, you can post it,” he said.
He said anyone with complaints against an officer can file them with the police complaints commissioner.
In a statement, police said the seizure of marijuana from the booth in the Downtown Eastside has been mischaracterized as a “raid.” Although the vendor told them the products were medicinal, police allege they were marked for sale and packaged in a manner consistent with trafficking, which is an illegal activity not allowed at the market.
Police said they allowed the vendor to leave with a warning, but they were forced to act the next day despite a hostile crowd when they found the same products on display.
Stamatakis of the police union said Pivot should take up any issues it has with the chief of police, not individual officers.
“If the officers didn’t do their jobs, as directed, they would not only be criticized but could also be accused of neglecting their duties and face disciplinary consequences,” he added.
Ronnie Grigg, general manager of the Vancouver Overdose Prevention Society, said the seizure of cannabis products from the booth galvanized the gathering of complaints against the two officers.
“I think the flash point and sort of the tipping point for us is the confiscation of some cannabis products that we use for a program, and I’ll say a very successful program, that provides alternatives for people with opioid addictions,” he said.
Grigg said he has witness the officers interact with vulnerable people who were unthreatening, including allegedly “aggressive arrests” and confiscating sleeping bags from people.