Police need more training to deal with street people, says report

Cops need more “harm reduction” training on how to deal with mental health and addictions common among street people

Although there are some Victoria cops who go out of their way to help street people, most police patrolling city streets don’t.

And it is not their fault, according to a preliminary report on Policing, the criminal justice system, and poverty, by the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group study.

Cops need more “harm reduction” training on how to deal with mental health and addictions common among street people and find ways combat their “discriminatory” attitudes against them, says a report overview presented to the Victoria Police Board last week by Tamara Herman, VIPIRG research coordinator.

The small amount of harm reduction training currently given the police isn’t enough to be effective, said Herman who oversaw the project that interviewed more than 100 “street involved people” by a 10-member research team including individuals with street life experience.

The aim of the research was to provide a snap shot of how policing in public places and the criminal justice influence the lives of “street involved people,” she said.

Street involved people are those who “experience fluctuating living situations that include shelters, couch-surfing, sleeping on the streets, and in supportive housing at various points of time.”

Although 38 percent of the street people said they had “helpful interactions with police,” almost all the rest said opposite, she said.

Those who felt they have been helped by cops cited personal examples of what they meant: “They watch for my safety while working, ensure I’m okay if high, help me get off the street” and “They drove me to a hospital last night and were really nice” and “They know I am handicapped. Once I passed out and they took me home.”

Most of personal contacts street people said they had with police was either when they were being searched, often because police thought they were high or intoxicated, telling them to move off of public property, or, more than one-third of the time, because they were panhandling, the preliminary report says.

About five per cent of the time their contact was police checking with them to make sure they were okay.

Despite the occasional praise, only three per cent of street people have confidence in the police, the preliminary report said. Forty one per cent said they didn’t have much confidence in the cops with 32 per cent saying they had “no confidence at all.”

Asked whether they thought the cops did a good job protecting them, only six per cent said yes compared to other studies which show 58 percent of the general public thinks police are good at their job.

Almost half of street people – 47 per cent – thought the cops treated them poorly.

Just over a quarter of the street people interviewed conceded the police did an “average job” in protecting them, compared to 42 per cent of the rest of the public.

The final report is expected to be completed and released in the next three or four weeks.