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Police in Harm Reduction: A Recipe For Failure

You may or may not have heard about the recent spat over police involvement with harm reduction outreach in Toronto. If not here is a brief article about this new “partnership” involving the Toronto Police Service.

I would like to start by saying I think restorative justice is a fantastic idea and one which is fit for an environment we have not yet fostered through less oppressive legal structures. So long as a group of people, drug users, remain criminalized, the police cannot be involved with services for that group as they are by definition “the enemy”, and any approach to that relationship will be problematic in many ways. Right now people who need things like clean needle exchanges are the target of the police, who have a mandate under existing legislation to arrest and incarcerate those people for the crime of using drugs in a manner not approved by a physician.

The police have a duty to arrest people for things like drug possession. It is not the job of the police service to write legislation, they do not decide which laws they are meant to enforce, or what those laws say, they are merely the pointy end of the stick held by the long arm of the law. I don’t even want them advocating for decriminalization, because it violates their role in society to attempt to influence Parliament in the first place. The police have every street drug user on their list of people to arrest right now, and until that changes they cannot be expected to serve that community in any positive way. Even interacting with that group in an intimate way will result in the exchange of information that police have a duty to use to arrest people. There is a total incompatibility of objectives between police and harm reduction workers in a prohibition context.

This article was first published on Studio L. You can read the original here.

I repeat for clarity: Any interaction between police and drug users will result in information exchange that police are duty-bound to use in the prosecution of crimes. Even if the police “mean well” they will still by osmosis pick up information that compromises the safety and security of an entire community.

Let’s say Constable Joe overhears two users talking in a community outreach center about a guy they know who is holding a whole lot of clean, pure heroin. The police have a duty to act upon that knowledge. Constable Joe can’t just keep that under his hat, he has to go tell the desk Sergeant when he gets off shift what he heard that day. This information will find its way to narcotics, who are now aware of a high-capacity supplier who must have a web of contacts that mean a whole buffet of potential arrests and prosecutions to put on their record. They know who spoke about that seller, so simply by tailing the buyers they know must eventually pick up they can begin a massive operation to bust buyers and sellers alike, possibly moving up the chain to distributors. All of this can happen because one cop in one outreach center listened in on one conversation that was slightly less discrete than it could have been.

Police are supposed to “serve and protect”, and by that logic it seems like they would be a natural companion for harm reduction. The federal government does not embrace harm reduction, not in so much as they are willing to end the prohibition of drugs, and so their representatives in the police cannot be harm reduction workers. It’s that simple. Their goals are in opposition, not alignment, and any police presence in The Works or any other harm reduction program without an end to the associated drug prohibition will work in such a way as to increase harms.

I am a drug user. If the police learn that I am a drug user they detain me, interrogate me, force me to show identification, search my person and possessions, and should I be unlucky enough to encounter them while I am carrying they will take my freedom when they discover as much. I’m supposed to trust that same person, the one who has a legal mandate to persecute and abuse me, to provide outreach services for the very activities they persecute me for?

Despite what you may have heard on the radio or seen in a movie, drug users are not an unintelligent lot. They are masters of survival for the most part, and their instincts will inform them when their intellect fails that the people who traumatized them last week aren’t the people to get clean needles from this week. It isn’t rocket science, it’s pretty goddamn simple.

The reason people in certain communities don’t talk to the police is that they are afraid of them. Criminalized groups like drug users top this list of folks who simply do not interact with law enforcement if they have any way to avoid it. Being mistreated by guys in uniform has a way of souring your opinion of that whole sector of the government, and the rest of all authority by extension. Being arrested is a traumatic experience; if somebody busted into your house right now and restrained you in handcuffs at gunpoint you’d be pretty upset as a result. I can say from experience the fact the person doing it has a badge and a license to conduct themselves in that fashion does nothing to soften the blow. The enforcement of our laws involves some pretty messy business, and a lot of people are hurt in the process by design. This needs to change, but forcing the marginalized to interact with police when they are at their most vulnerable is not the way to go about it.

However well intended it claims to be this entire project reeks of a total lack of awareness about the experience and concerns of drug users. The fact the John Howard Society with their involvement in the community of convicts failed to see why this was a problem is even more astonishing. It’s a flagrant attempt on the part of Toronto Police Services, I would suspect dreamed up by their intelligence division, to cultivate assets and information amongst a secretive group of people they seek to bring criminal charges against. In joining with “harm reduction” at a time when drug users are still treated like stray animals on the street they have tipped their hand. It’s the most ham-handed attempt to play James Bond yet, even in context of their long and sordid history of botched operations.

The problem of criminalization must be addressed from the top down. It is not incumbent upon drug users to “earn” their own human rights by trying to play nice in previously safe spaces with the people who put them in cages. It must come from the top of the federal government in the form of sweeping decriminalization and justice reform. The current system destroys lives, and the police are the instrument by which those lives are ruined. The police can’t even try to do “good works” if their very function in society has become corrosive.

The worm must be cut from the apple, and that’s going to be a long and painful process. It’s going to come with aggressive legislative reform and a redefinition of the relationship between the public and the criminal justice system. This kind of half-assed attempt at public relations through a lot of glad-handing two-faced intelligence gathering will serve nobody but those already abusing their own authority. Drug users are not a group who feels relief when they hear the sirens approaching; they are the people who know that the nightmare has now truly begun for them. The police are not white knights to drug users, they are the dark thing that lives in the swamp and which naughty children fear might come to take them away into the night. Finding a cop in a harm reduction outreach center is like getting to the Emerald City only to find out the Wizard is Saruman.

The biggest reduction of harm to drug users would be an end to the practice of arresting them for using drugs. To have the same service that creates harms involved in reducing them aside from being hilariously inappropriate is also self-defeating. Police could do drug users a world of good by simply leaving them alone, but they cannot do so without new orders from up top of the chain of command in Parliament. To turn around and offer a pat on the back to go with the kick in the ass is cynical to the extreme, worthy of the Toronto Police Service, and a repugnant lack of vision from the John Howard Society.

I’ll be willing to call the police to help me with something the very day I can be sure they won’t drag me away with the people perpetrating a crime against me simply because I use drugs.Until then I will assiduously avoid contact with them regardless of the potential risks to my own person. I am not alone in this thinking, and I sincerely hope lives are not lost before the obvious fallacy of this approach becomes apparent to those so voraciously defending it in the press. Restorative justice is a post-prohibition era project and this approach is a cart tied to the wrong end of the horse.

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