A controversial program that disguises plainclothes police officers as harm reduction workers has some outreach workers and portions of the homeless and drug-using population of Toronto up in arms.
The Street Outreach project—a pilot program by the Toronto Police Service (TPS) launched last fall that partners with two of the city's major harm reduction organizations—has much of the marginalized community saying that the program needs to be completely shut down by its planned end date of March 31.
The program has caused significant backlash from other outreach groups in the city. The concern is that at-risk communities are now afraid of being threatened or arrested by police officers embedded within The Works—a needle exchange run through Toronto Public Health—and John Howard Society (JHS), a privately-funded outreach group. The Toronto Police denies that the program has ever been used to assist in arrests.
"Our problem isn't as much with the police—they had access and money and thought, This is good. The Works and JHS are the two agencies that let the police in and mixed law enforcement with harm reduction, and those two places are the ones that really dropped the ball," Matt Johnson, a spokesperson for the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance (THRA), told VICE.
Johnson explained that, for marginalized communities, police presence is intimidating enough, but notes that there's an added factor: The information typically shared with harm reduction workers—both medical history and intimate details of client's lives—is not something most drug users feel comfortable talking to the police about. Often, they're afraid it may be used against them, their friends, or their dealers.
According to Johnson, the blowback from at-risk communities—against not only The Works and JHS, but organizations such as Parkdale Community Health Centre—has been tremendous.
"When we conduct outreach, we learn people's Hep C status, their HIV status, what kind of drugs they've been using, and sometimes where they're getting their drugs from. This is all stuff that people would be very careful about if they knew they were talking to a police officer. We first heard just whispers about suspicious interactions with police near these [communities]. [After a while], harm reduction teams—our peer teams—started getting people saying, 'I'm not talking to you, you work with the police.'"
According to the Toronto police, the program—built on the back of a $99,000 [$70,000 USD] portion of a provincial grant called "Proceeds of Crime"—is in no way targeting drug users for arrest or looking to obtain any criminal information from them. Rather, police say they're trying to supplement enforcement policies with community policing—the sooner at-risk, possibly violent individuals can get access to social services, the less likely is that police have to deal with criminal behavior later.
Superintended Scott Baptist, unit commander of 13 Division—which works in conjunction with John Howard Society—says that the Street Outreach project is part of a "turning point" for the police. Baptist says that the TPS has begun to deal with issues of substance abuse and mental health as social problems, not crimes.
"We have a court system that is simply ineffective in instances like this," he told VICE, noting that many cases dealing with at-risk populations are not as cut-and-dry as the criminal code makes them out to be.
"Enforcement is not the cure. It's a social issue that needs a social cure."
In January, THRA and the Toronto Drug Users Union (TDUU) called an emergency meeting with Toronto communities to discuss complaints regarding police not identifying themselves while with harm reduction workers. There were also concerns that arrests around the time the program began—two of which Johnson says happened at The Works—were a direct result of the Street Outreach project.
The aftermath of the meeting was that, officially, the police have stopped going out with outreach workers from The Works on street operations, although the program has continued without change at the John Howard Society. In the case of The Works, if 12 or 13 Division police encounter anybody in the community who wants access to further services, the officers on duty would send a referral to The Works and allow an employee take it from there, rather than ride along with harm reduction workers directly.
Baptist told VICE that officers on outreach always operate in plainclothes, but says that they are required to carry ID around their neck and verbally identify themselves as law enforcement. Despite this, Johnson alleges that not all police are identifying themselves.
"The people that it's supposedly helping? They know it's destroying their life, because they're not comfortable going to these places anymore and getting the services they need. They're afraid that, if the cops on the program see them, even if they aren't busting them then, the police still know their faces," said Dawn, a member of one of the harm reduction center in the city (whose name has been changed to protect employment). According to Dawn, the issue of police possibly gaining intelligence from those seeking help goes far past the individual who they collect it from.
"If the police were to see them while not on outreach and on regular duty, they're afraid of getting busted, they're afraid of outing their friends, they're afraid of outing their dealers if they get caught talking with those cops. It's destroyed 30 years of trust building within the agencies."
To Johnson, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether the police are collecting information or not—the streets believe it enough to deter some people from going to get help.
"What's out on the street is that this has resulted in arrests. Perception in street communities is the same as fact, so the police can deny it as much as they want, but that won't change the truth: that some people are not coming to get help anymore."
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