B.C. election: Advocates say Liberal plan on ‘street disorder’ criminalizes poverty

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A B.C. human rights organization says the BC Liberals’ pledge to tackle “growing street disorder” and crime rates by hiring more police officers — at a time when sweeping police reforms have been a topic across North America for months — misses the mark.

The BC Liberals have promised to hire 200 new police officers, along with 100 more psychiatric social workers if elected. The plan would also increase the capacity of existing integrated mobile crisis response teams and hire additional Crown Prosecutors and support staff to process charges for those accused of crimes.

But Meenakshi Mannoe, with the Pivot Legal Society, said BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson’s plan has taken the route of criminalizing poverty.

“From Pivot’s campaign work we know that what will best address ‘street disorder’ is upstream interventions and investments in things like safe supply, decriminalization of simple possession, access to permanent housing solutions, peer-based programming and essentially efforts to end the criminalization of poverty and the criminalization of mental health issue,” she said.

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“And of course these are issues that impact racialized communities disproportionately, and so to call for further police, I think, reveals a lack of anti-racist analysis at a time when we’re seeing movements globally that are calling into question the biases police bring when they’re policing racialized communities.”

Mannoe said Wilkinson has repeatedly conflated crime with homelessness — and used people sleeping in tents as a backdrop for that rhetoric.

“You have people who are using extremely dehumanizing and degrading language to talk about people based on their social condition, mental health, substance-use issues, and it does beg questions about how they’re going to legislate if elected,” she said.

“I don’t think politicians who stand in front of tents and talk about how disgusting they are can at all claim to be representing the people who live in said tents.”

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However, Mannoe said she’s not impressed with any of the major parties in B.C. so far, and said she’s not confident that police reform will continue to be a priority after the Oct. 24 election.

In July, the NDP provincial government created an all-party to committee to work on reforming the 50-year old BC Police Act. That work has been paused because of the snap election.

The main role of that committee was to examine the scope of systemic racism within B.C.’s policing systems, but its mandate also included examining the role of police in mental health and wellness, addictions, and harm reduction.

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Mannoe said it was encouraging that the committee was created. But she also said that the committee — along with politicians running for office in the election — haven’t taken strong enough steps to engage with people experiencing homelessness or substance-use addiction.

“The feedback I hear is that (those groups) are often talked about, and not actually directing the conversations,” Mannoe said.

“What we really need to do is have people in these very important positions who are able and not afraid of talking to people who are experiencing homelessness.”

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