Jim Byrnes’ Long Riders
featuring Steve Dawson
Friday, February 15
doors open at 7:00 pm
The Park at English Bay, 1755 David Street, Vancouver
Located in the Best Western Plus Sands Hotel (corner of Davie & Denman)
Jim Byrnes’ Long Riders
featuring Steve Dawson
Friday, February 15
doors open at 7:00 pm
The Park at English Bay, 1755 David Street, Vancouver
Located in the Best Western Plus Sands Hotel (corner of Davie & Denman)
He walked the Hastings Street beat long before anyone had ever dreamed of AIDS, HIV or taxpayer-funded buildings where you could plunge heroin into your veins.
The Charter of Rights was still ten years in the future, and it would be two decades before so-called hockey fans would riot in the streets of Vancouver — for the first time — following the Canucks’ Game 7 loss in 1994.
There was no Twitter or Facebook to whip people into a frenzy. They had to use old-fashioned ways to organize rallies and marches — by knocking on doors and dialing rotary phones. There were no iPhones to record his every move, and no police complaints commissioner breathing down his neck every time he said something that might hurt someone’s feelings.
For Bernie “Whistling” Smith, Hastings Street in the 1970s was a hard place. But he had easy answers. His methods were unconventional, abrasive and a little controversial. But they worked.
Bernie “Whistling” Smith
“What are we going to do to keep the young people away from drugs? I think one of the things is to make it difficult on the streets for any drug addict,” he said in a 1975 documentary, Whistling Smith, produced by the National Film Board.
“Let’s not make it easy for them to come down here. Let’s make it really difficult to be a drug addict or a prostitute or a criminal, as difficult as possible. So difficult it should become almost impossible.”
Policing tends to attract big personalities. In the 125 year history of Vancouver Police Department few have had personalities as big, and characters as colourful, as Bernie Smith.
Smith joined VPD in 1945 after a stint in the army, and he wore the police uniform until his retirement in 1979. He worked in a number of places during his 30-plus years as a cop, but he’s best known for the days he spent as a sergeant in the Downtown Eastside. He was both heavy handed and caring to the people here, and his unorthodox methods of policing helped make him one of VPD’s most famous.
photo courtesy Odd Squad Productions
I was among a group of about 30 police officers and Vancouver Jail guards who had a chance to meet Whistling Smith last week, when the guys from Odd Squad arranged a visit at the police station on Main Street. The sit-down was documented by a film crew that’s just begun working on season two of the reality series The Beat.
It’s been more than three decades since Bernie Smith last walked the beat, and time is starting to catch up with him. He walks a little slower than he used to, and he relies on the help of a cane, thanks to faltering vision. But he still sports his trademark moustache — minus the handlebars. His wit is still as wry as ever. And after nearly crushing my fingers in a vice-grip handshake last week, I’m pretty sure the retired sergeant could still hold his own if I called him to cover me in a Balmoral Hotel bar fight.
Bernie “Whistling” Smith chats with VPD Inspector Rob Rothwell about life as a beat cop in the 1970s
As I listened to Whistling Smith tell stories about his time on the beat, it struck me how many things have changed, and yet how much remains the same.
“Drug addicts are allowed to congregate and stand on our streets, which I think is basically wrong,” he said back in the 1975 documentary.
“Prostitiutes are allowed to stand there and solicit, and in order to catch them it’s quite complicated. And you can catch them three and four and five times, and they still haven’t gone to court on the first one. The amount of money it costs the taxpayers must be astronomical.”
Although the comments were made more than 35 years ago, they may as well have been uttered yesterday.
Drug addicts still litter the streets and laneways. Only now they’re wired to crack, meth, and heroin — and in many cases living with undiagnosed illnesses like schizophrenia.
Street prostitution is still rampant in the industrial area north of Hastings Street. Only now, the girls don’t just have to worry about getting money for their next fix. They have to worry about AIDS, serial killers and bad dates.
And just like in Whistling Smith’s day, cops can still arrest someone three, four, or five times before they ever go to court on the first one. Sometimes you can even arrest a person in the morning, then arrest him again at night if the timing is right.
Although many of the problems remain the same, much has changed between Whistling Smith’s day and mine.
Back then, police officers didn’t worry about mincing words. Women who got paid to have sex were called whores, not sex-trade workers. Twenty-somethings who stood on the corner and asked for handouts were called beggars and rubby-dubs, not marginalized youth. None of them were welcome, or tolerated, on Whisting Smith’s beat, let alone invited to live there.
Back in Whistling Smith’s day harm reduction meant throwing a drunk in jail before he got robbed. It meant chasing a john out of the neighburhood before he caught an unpleasant infection. It meant showing a drug dealer the way home, and giving him a helping hand if he didn’t move fast enough to get there.
Smith recognized early on that a little bit of disorder, if left unchallenged, would eventually lead to more disorder and crime. No offence, he said, should go ignored, whether it be a kid sniffing glue on the corner, a drunk passed out on a bench or someone riding their bike on the sidewalk. You don’t have to arrest them all, he said, but you sure can’t allow it to happen without saying something.
It was a hard-nosed approach that worked. On days when Whistling Smith was on duty, the crime rate would be cut in half. Prostitutes, pill pushers and drug addicts were chased out of the area. Beggars and rummies were picked up and carted off to jail. Smith’s simple philosophy would later be dubbed the Broken Windows Theory, and in the 1980s and ’90s it was hailed as the salve for New York City’s crime epidemic.
It’s been some 35 years since Bernie Smith’s days as a beat cop. I’m sure he never dreamed the next generation would still be searching for ways to solve the scourge of the Downtown Eastside. And I bet he never imagined the problems would have multiplied the way they have.
I asked him whether he figured we’d still be looking for answers 35 years from now. He told me he thinks there will come a time when society will simply say enough’s enough, and will stand up to say that this kind of lifestyle, this kind of poverty and these kinds of living conditons are no longer acceptable.
If and when that happens, nobody knows. Until then, all I can do is what Bernie Smith did — try to leave this nasty place a little better than I found it. I only hope that when I’m 88 years old and long retired, the next generation of police officers won’t still be looking for answers.
Watch online now at oddsquad.com/videos
RestART is a restorative justice art program that provides youth who have previously engaged in illegal graffiti with opportunities to express themselves in a positive way under mentorship from established local artists and community members. The RestART Program has experienced success with deterring youth participants from reentering the illegal graffiti subculture.
Vancouver Police Sergeant Kalwinder Dosanjh oversees a squad of officers in the Downtown Eastside.
Posted by Steve
One of the lead news stories in Vancouver today was a study which found that illicit drugs are rampant on the streets of Vancouver.
The B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS reported that drugs such as heroin, cocaine, meth and marijuana can be bought on Vancouver’s streets in as little as 10 minutes.
Go figure. And in other news, a plane landed safely today at YVR.
I’m not sure what’s more frustrating — that this problem continues to fester after years of enforcement, education and even harm reduction, or that some people are just waking up to the fact that it’s about as easy to buy crack in Downtown Vancouver as it is to find a Starbucks.
By the way, there’s a Starbucks on just about every corner.
What appears of particular concern to the study’s authors is that street drugs are just as accessible to young people as they are to adults, if not more.
“Among the 330 youth aged 14-26 involved in the study, nearly 63% reported accessing crystal methamphetamine in as little as 10 minutes, compared to 39% of adult users. Young drug users also reported significantly easier access to marijuana, with 88% saying they could obtain the drug within 10 minutes (versus 73% of adults),” said the press release posted online by the BC Centre of Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
I’m not sure what else you would expect with the slapdash assortment of marijuana cafes, pot dispensaries and crooked corner stores that line Hastings Street — a 10 minute walk from four separate SkyTrain stations. Not to mention the army of drug dealers, many of whom are barely adults themselves, that litters the lanes of the Downtown Eastside and operates with near impunity. It’s not as if people who make their living by pimping poison to drug addicts are going to suddenly have a moral epiphany when a 16 year old customer waves $20 in their face.
Yes, Vancouver does have a drug problem. I’m waiting for the study that shows us the solution.
Season 2 Premieres Sunday July 29 at 9pm ET/ 6pm PT
Back for a much anticipated second season, THE BEAT, produced by Montreal based Galafilm Production, delivers the same gritty, high-octane action as it did the first time around. Over 10 riveting episodes, the show follows the Vancouver Police Department’s Beat Enforcement Team, as they patrol the city’s Downtown Eastside— a hotbed of drug abuse, prostitution, mental illness and violent crime. Maintaining order in a place like this is no small task. It takes tireless work, and a ready supply of courage and compassion. Luckily, the men and women of the BET are up to the challenge.
The Beat delivers in-your-face confrontations as the B.E.T. patrols, serves, and protects the city’s downtown eastside community – a hotbed of drug abuse, prostitution, mental illness, and violent crime. Maintaining order will not be easy, and to do so takes tireless work with a ready supply of courage and compassion. Is the B.E.T up to the challenge?
Led by 20-year veteran Sgt. Toby Hinton and adrenaline junkie Sgt. Mark Steinkampf, The Beat follows the intersecting stories of six police officers who live for the street. The squad includes Const. Hobbs, a third generation police officer who spends his free time volunteering; Const. Addison, an ex-journalist who blogs on the side; and Const. Brown, the longest-serving female officer on the force – up for a promotion any day. The newest member to the team, Const. Smith, is no rookie and has quickly become the go-to guy for large scale drug busts. Followed by cameras 24/7, each episode of The Beat provides an in-depth look at the professional lives of the officers.
Five days past her 18th birthday, she was hooting on a crack pipe near the corner of Hastings and Columbia. She tossed the glass pipe to the pavement as we approached and tried to blend in with the crowd.
“Please don’t arrest me,” the pretty redhead pleaded as I grabbed her arm to prevent her from running away.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I just want to talk to you.”
My god, she looked young. Dressed in jean shorts and a button-up shirt that was tied in a knot just above the belly button, she looked like she should have been riding a tire swing at the family cottage, not getting high on Hastings Street. Though her hair was unwashed and her face was breaking out in sores, I could tell she was still early in her suffering. The addiction hadn’t fully taken control of her.
I wanted to help her.
We talked as I ran the girl’s name through the police database. Her story reminded me that addiction does not discriminate between race, gender or class.
The product of a tony West Vancouver neighbourhood, she began experimenting with hallucinogens — magic mushrooms and LSD — at age 15. She managed to get clean for eight months, but soon was looking for new ways to get high. Which brought her to Ground Zero in the Downtown Eastside — still frighteningly oblivious to the dangers surrounding her.
She’d been staying with her new boyfriend — a 38-year-old she met five days ago — in a room at the Balmoral Hotel. Despite its regal name, the Balmoral is quite possibly the worst slum hotel in the city. It’s infested with cockroaches and rats, and the rooms reek of urine and dirty cat litter. (When we stopped by later that night to suss out the boyfriend, we found his room littered with empty beer cans and condom wrappers.)
A pretty, new face like her’s is easy prey on these streets. And with a habit to feed I figured it was just a matter of time before she’d be selling her body to buy drugs — either for herself or for the boyfriend whose last name she still did not know.
The young redhead assured me that wouldn’t be the case.
“Don’t worry. I’m against prostitution.”
She said it with such righteousness and confidence that I knew this girl just didn’t have a clue. I told her about the young lady I spoke to a few months ago who stands on the street corner and gets into strangers cars — sometimes 10 a night — just to support her heroin habit. I told her how that girl knows that every car she gets into could be the last.
Her lip started to quiver and her eyes welled up with tears. I asked if she really thought that any of the girls who sell themselves for drug money are actually in favour of prostitution. A tear rolled down her cheek, and we both knew she was only fooling herself.
It’s not often that we see any kind of vulnerability or emotion from the men and women in the Downtown Eastside. Life can be so hard down here, I think most learn to shut off the emotions, or simply bury them so deep that they can’t be seen. You have to be tough to survive in the Downtown Eastside, and vulnerability makes for easy victims.
But the tears in this girl’s eyes told me she wasn’t that far gone, that there was still a chance to save her.
I offered to help her. I promised her a ride to anywhere she wanted to go — so long as it was away from skid row. I knew this was likely a now-or-never moment. She thought about it for about a second, then asked if she could go see her boyfriend instead.
I wanted to tell her that she couldn’t, that she had to come with me. But the reality was I could not force her to make the smart choice. The crack pipe she had tossed on the ground had already been trampled on and crushed, and I really had no authority to hang onto her.
I told her she was an adult now, and that the decision was her’s to make. She could choose to stay, and risk being sucked into a lifetime in sex, drugs and disease. She could choose to go, and maybe have an outside chance of getting her life together.
“You’re an adult now,” I said, cringing as the words left my mouth. “It’s your choice.”
She wiped the tears from her eyes, then darted across the street and back toward the Balmoral Hotel to see the boyfriend who was old enough to be her father.
As she disappeared into the sea of disorder somewhere east of Columbia Street, I knew it was just a matter of time before I’d see her again. By that time, it would likely be too late.
She had made her decision, and it was the wrong one.
Airing: Season 2 Premieres Sunday July 29 at 9pm ET/ 6pm PT
Never before have television cameras had unlimited access to the police that patrol Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, one of the most controversial neighborhoods in North America. The Beat is a ten-part docu-soap series that presents a gritty, behindthe-scenes look at the challenges faced by The Beat Enforcement Team’s Squad Three, as they tirelessly work to maintain order in a community crippled by poverty, drug addiction and mental illness.
Drawn from hundreds of hours of footage, shot night and day over six full months, The Beat captures every corner and crevasse of the Downtown Eastside’s 12 square blocks. See rooming house raids, undercover sting operations, stakeouts, petty thieves and major drug gangs being brought to justice in a neighborhood that’s home to an estimated 5,000 hardcore drug users and a population with the highest HIV infection rate in the developed world. The Beat also offers a glimpse at the officers away from their daily patrols, where the rigors of work are balanced with the pleasures of family life.
The non-profit group, which recently marked its 15th anniversary, has produced more than 15 documentaries telling real stories of the pitfalls of drug abuse, gangs and other high-risk behaviour.
Through a Blue Lens-perhaps their most notable documentary that was produced in partnership with the National Film Board-has been viewed by millions in 22 countries. Scathed & Stolen Lives and Tears for April have both received accolades at the New York Film Festival. The squad also makes presentations to schools, community centres and boardrooms. The group has also enlisted high school students to spread the word. Its On Track program takes young achievers on a one-day workshop that includes a stroll through the Downtown Eastside. Students return to their schools as ambassadors sharing lessons learned with their peers.
Why did you choose a career in policing?
I disliked authority and needed to come to terms with that. I thought the best way was to become authority and then try to find out why I hated it so much. Not sure if that worked or not, because I still don’t like authority.
How did the Odd Squad come about?
I was doing presentations with boring visuals. I asked Ret. Const. Al Arsenault if I could borrow some slides. Immediately, the presentation was a lot more interesting. Right around this time, a bunch of beat cops sat down and decided to start doing some prevention work. We wanted to get a strong message out to youth about the consequences of bad decisions, particularly around drug use/abuse. The marriage of presentation and stills/video, along with support from the department, led us to making videos. A well-done educational film can go a lot further and reach a much wider audience.
What do you hope to achieve?
We hope to prevent people from ending up in the type of grim situation we often see on the street. We want to encourage youth to reach their potential in life and not fall victim to the consequences of bad decisions around risky behaviour. Educated and informed youth are in a better position to make healthy decisions with their bodies, and that this knowledge will carry them well through life.
What do you say to kids who may want to experiment with drugs?
I would want kids to be well educated on what they are putting in their bodies, and this starts with diet, and extends to everything else. Your body is the biggest investment you have in life: look after it! The No. 1 killer out there is tobacco. Alcohol is a huge problem in society. There are some serious consequences to the drugs that are being used by youth, starting with alcohol and tobacco.
There is virtually no quality control in any of the illicit street drugs (witness the large number of youth lost in the past year to PMMA-contaminated ecstasy). I would want to have the youth delay the experimentation as late as possible in life, so that their social bonds are developed, they have started identifying their passions and interests, their brains are maturing, and they have established a healthy lifestyle. Chances are if they are 13 or 14 they could have much more significant issues with drug use and experimentation than someone who is on their way in life at age 19.
Your advice to parents?
Get engaged. Know your kids and their friends. Educate yourself about drugs and current trends with youth. Be there for your kids no matter what. Make sure that you are a good role model and leader at every waking moment. This is what you signed up for.
How did you get your subjects to open up?
Most of the drug addicts we work with don’t want anyone else to end up in their situation. For the most part, they are united in wanting to get a strong deterrent message out to youth. In a way, I think it helps them reclaim some dignity by contributing to valuable prevention work.
How do you solve the problems of the Downtown Eastside?
That question deserves a little more space for a response. There are a number of problems including crime, housing, drug addiction/dealing, poverty, mental health and prostitution. All of these are interrelated. Overall, I think there needs to be a bit more accountability into the money spent here, and we need to change our mindset from “non-judgmental” and “low-threshold” to focusing on getting people healthier (sacrilegious to say it nowadays but helping people become clean and sober) and into a structured and safe living environment. Just maintaining a pulse is not necessarily the best goal to strive for.
Are we making progress?
In some areas there has been great progress. In other areas there has been great slippage. For example, years ago 80 individuals a year (primarily First Nations) were being killed from consuming rice wine (non-potable due to sodium content). Ret. Insp. Ken Frail took this project on and forced change to the regulation banning corner stores in the Downtown Eastside from selling rice wine. We no longer have these deaths, although there is a substitute effect, nothing to the extent that we were dealing with 15 years ago.
On the other hand, a number of rooming houses are actually doing a good job. The conditions in a few have become worse. We now regularly attend to these hotels to deal with criminal issues, police complaints, and other problems. We were not doing this in the past.
A young hipster in skinny jeans and a plaid shirt stopped me on West Hastings Street the other day.
“So, when are you gonna start arresting some of the drug dealers out here?” he asked.
It was a bit of a sarcastic comment, so I dished a little of the same back his way.
“Sure,” I said. “You point ‘em out to me and I’ll go arrest them.”
We were standing outside the Burns Block, a century-old building and former low-income hotel that was recently converted into 30 “micro-lofts.” It’s part of the so-called gentrification of the Downtown Eastside.
This hipster had apparently just moved into the area, likely wanting to live in Vancouver’s edgiest neighbourhood, but perhaps not quite realizing his front door was just steps away from ground zero in the city’s open-air drug market.
‘They’re everywhere,” he said. “I walk down the street and all I get is people trying to sell me drugs.”
Despite the cheekiness of our initial exchange, I could tell he was genuine. I empathized with his frustration. He felt like the police were not doing enough to deal with the drug problem in the area. Looking around at the mess, I could see his frustration.
For decades, the seedy strip along Hastings Street has been a postcard for poverty. Once it was the commercial centre of a young city. Over time the legitimate businesses were replaced — first by pawnshops and beer parlours, then by methadone clinics, shady corner stores and run-down rooming houses.
Now, after decades in the dumps, investment is slowly creeping back. Those tired old landmarks are being replaced with market housing, trendy eateries and a whole new population that’s heard about, but has likely never really seen what the Downtown Eastside was all about.
It’s made for a bit of a culture clash.
I’ve had more than a few unsuspecting twenty-somethings flag me down after having their iPhones ripped from their hands while their heads were buried in a text message. For them, it’s a $400 investment down the drain. For the thief who snatched it, it’s something they can sell for $30 and buy some rock.
And like the fellow I was now speaking to on West Hastings, I’ve also had my share of newcomers ask why the police aren’t doing more to arrest the drug dealers who litter the streets.
To understand why, one must first understand how this drug market works.
By and large, drugs are brought to the Downtown Eastside by young, non-addicted males in their 20s. They’re low and mid-level drug dealers, many of whom work for a larger organized crime groups.
I call them predatory drug dealers.
They strut around with hundreds, if not thousands of dollars wadded up in their jeans, while the people they profit from scrounge around from hoot to hoot, and from hit to hit.
I explained this to the young hipster, but it only fed his indignance.
“So why don’t you go arrest them all?” he asked again, not quite understanding.
I’d love to, but it’s not that easy.
Over the years these predatory drug dealers have learned to insulate themselves from the police. They rarely, if ever, actually do the drug dealing. Instead, they bring the drugs to the area, stash them in shady businesses or rooming houses, then “hire” addicts to do their dirty work.
It’s the addicts who take all the risk. They huddle in alcoves and stand in laneways, peddling flaps of heroin and chunks of crack cocaine for $10 or $20 apiece. Meantime, the predator directs traffic, collects the money, imposes arbitrary debts, and metes out beatings when those debts don’t get paid.
So if they’re taking all the risk, why do the addicts do it?
If they’re lucky, the addicted workers will get paid with enough drugs to feed their own habit for the day. If they’re unlucky, the cops will come along, arrest them and take them to jail. And when they get out the next day, it’s almost guaranteed they’ll be forced back to work in order to make up for the drugs and money they lost to the cops.
As a cop, I can walk around all day and do nothing but arrest addicts for flipping $10 rocks or passing a few flaps of heroin. One school of thought says I should, and on many days I tend to agree. But the other school of thought questions what, if anything, that would accomplish.
See, for every crack- or heroin-addicted drug dealer who gets busted and carted off to jail for the night, there’s a handful of others lined up to take their place. It seems like a never-ending cycle.
We arrested a young lady for selling heroin not long ago. I asked her why she chooses to sell dope. Her answer was hard to argue with.
“I’m an addict. I’d rather sell drugs than sell my body.”
She told me she got paid $80 a day to sell drugs for one of those predatory dealers, and she feared she’d get beaten if she tried to quit. Still, it was better than standing on the street corner and getting into strangers’ cars.
One dealer Dan and I spoke with last week said he wished the police had busted him a long time ago. After 12 years schlepping dope, he’s now so far entrenched — and likely in debt — he doesn’t know if he’ll every get out of the business.
“They have all these programs for drug addicts…all these services to help drug addicts get off the streets. But they don’t have any programs to help drug dealers,” he told me.
I thought he must be joking, but he was dead serious. There is one program, I told him. It’s called jail.
“I wish you guys had put me in jail a long time ago,” the 30-year-old admitted. ”Maybe if I’d been charged a couple of times I would have gotten out of here.”
I wish someone had put him in jail, too. But in reality, it’s not that simple, especially for drug dealers who know how to play the game.
Knowing someone’s a drug dealer and proving it in a court of law are two entirely different things. And because they rarely handle the drugs, gathering enough evidence to lay a charge on these guys takes skill, resources and a whole lot of good timing.
Prosecutors are often reluctant to approve charges against someone who isn’t actually caught with their hand in the cookie jar, and that even when charges get approved, convincing a judge to convict can be difficult.
Besides, the Downtown Eastside has been a mess for decades, and so long as there’s unlimited demand for drugs, there’s going to be people there to peddle them. Though I’d love to put these guys in jail, I’m not naive enough to think we can arrest our way out of this epidemic. If that were the case, it would have been done a long time ago.
I explained all this to the hipster in the skinny jeans, hoping he’d understand that the problem wasn’t so black and white. I told him that the issues here — be it prostitution, poverty, drug dealing or disease — are complex ones with no quick fixes.
In the end he just shrugged his shoulders, cocked his eyebrows and gave me a look of resignation.
“What are you gonna do,” he asked rhetorically, as he turned toward the door of his apartment building.
I didn’t have answer.