EDITORIAL | What we are talking about when we talk about bylaw ticketing in the Downtown Eastside

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Editor’s note: William Damon will be speaking at Policing the Crisis in Vancouver, an upcoming event co-organized by The Mainlander and SFU’s Institute for the Humanities. Join us tomorrow, Tuesday April 29th, 7:00pm, Room 420, Wosk Centre for Dialogue SFU – 580 W. Hastings St. Check out here or the facebook event page for more details.

Last week, four Downtown Eastside residents went to court to challenge a Vancouver bylaw that effectively prohibits subsistence street vending in the city.

The street vending bylaw penalizes a survival strategy for low-income people who struggle to make ends meet. More than 95% of all street-vending tickets issued in Vancouver were for bylaw infractions in the DTES. The neighborhood is also the location of the city’s highest rates of ticketing for jaywalking and panhandling.

These tickets, often around $250, are too expensive for those already supplementing poverty wages with the sale of recycled goods and their own belongings.

In 2009, the VPD acknowledged that many low-income people were unable to pay these fines but argued that the ticketing practice was necessary to communicate the limits of tolerable behavior while also providing an opportunity to search individuals for illegal items, inspect identification, and check for out-standing warrants.

Bylaw ticketing in the DTES isn’t limited to street vending; community groups have been trying to put an end to the unequal enforcement of various “civility bylaws” for years. When a challenge to bylaw ticketing in the DTES was brought to the police board last year, this time concerning police ticketing for jaywalking, the VPD issued a report. It showed that ticketing for jaywalking had declined substantially since 2008 and argued that existing ticketing rates were a balanced response to high rates of jaywalking within the DTES. “[I]t is a widely-spread misconception that police officers can arrest someone for unpaid by-law tickets where a warrant does not exist,” assured the report. “The police do not have the ability to arrest for breaching a by-law or failure to pay a fine.”

As a response to this report, many Vancouver political elites rebuffed concerns about bylaw enforcement and the criminalization of poverty in Vancouver. Mayor Robertson acknowledged that, while police may have gone “overboard” with ticketing blitzes in the past, current police practice reflected a balanced approach. According to City Councilor Kerry Jang, the VPD’s report ended “the persistent myth that police have been coming down hard on the poor”.

The trouble is, the police got an important point wrong in their account of bylaw ticketing. In fact, many of the ways that data has been enlisted in contestations around bylaw ticketing unjustly delegitimize those concerned by police practices.

For instance, contrary to claims that police cannot arrest someone for violating a municipal bylaw, courts have been clear that violating municipal and provincial statutes is sufficient grounds to lay charges for breach of a bail or probation order when the person being ticketed is under some form of community supervision. These offense types occupy 40% of all criminal court case matters in B.C.

‘Civility bylaws’ like regulations against street vending, panhandling, obstructing the sidewalk, or camping in public, erode protections against illegal search and seizure that shield people from being caught up in police dragnets, unfairly detained, or hassled by the police in the absence of criminal wrongdoing.

Public space in Canadian cities has been increasingly regulated, often with the aid of municipal and provincial statutes. Gentrification has also amplified conflict over the use of space as poverty and homelessness become pretexts for proactive police regulation.

These two points are related. In the brave new world of “proactive policing,” the aggressive enforcement of court orders is an increasingly common tactic. Failure to comply with a court order and breach of probation are the two most common criminal court case matters in B.C and throughout Canada, contributing to the costly and unsustainable growth in the number of people being held in preventative detention. But in order to proactively enforce court orders, police need to be able to stop, search, and run the names of people through police databases. How else would you know if someone missed their last court date or was violating their court order to abstain from drugs and alcohol? This is what activists in Toronto call police carding, a practice that disproportionately affects people of colour.

Street vending bylaws and other similar statutes are powerful tools for the regulation of public space. They make possible a Canadian variant of New York City style ‘stop and frisk policing,’ that, I’ve been told in my research interviews, local police refer to as “getting to know who is who in the zoo.” Local community groups have chastened police in the past for conducting illegal “street checks” in the DTES, but broad bylaws provide an avenue for police discretion that side-steps these Charter protections and silences complaint.

The thing about the use of bylaws to stop and frisk DTES residents is that it doesn’t necessarily leave a paper trail, making some statistical measures of the police practice misleading. Statutes expand police discretion whether or not an actual ticket is ever written, and when people go to jail for violating a bylaw, the charges are registered as “failure to comply with a court order,” a catch-all charge that doesn’t describe the underlying behavior.

When Mayor Robertson, Police Chief Chu, and Clr. Jang argue that contemporary policing in Vancouver is more balanced than in the past, they are not wrong. The extremes of police violence exemplified by police crackdowns in the DTES in the 1990s and early 2000’s, like Operation Torpedo are, thankfully, a thing of the past. But there is strong evidence to suggest that the criminalization of poverty is still with us.

Vancouver’s $235 million police budget is the largest, and fastest growing (up $1.2 million this year), part of the city budget. As Vancouver struggles to provide affordable housing, the evidence for housing-first policies to reduce crime has never been stronger. We need to think big and stem the flow of resources into a police force which regulates the survival strategies of the urban poor.

Photo credit: Vancourier