LETHBRIDGE – More crime and a larger homeless and drug-addicted population is fuelling more public complaints and a need for better provincial legislation for non-law enforcement and medical detention, says Lethbridge Police Chief Rob Davis.
Speaking at the Community Issues Committee meeting Monday, Oct. 1, from the enforcement perspective, Davis described to the committee what police are seeing and experiencing on a daily basis. Enforcement is one of the four pillars of addressing addiction. The others include harm reduction, treatment, and education and prevention.
“What the officers are reporting that they’re seeing is a large homeless population, transient population that’s intersected with the drug culture that appears to be increasing.”
Davis cited a statistic from ARCHES in 2017 that described an estimated 700 street involved homeless drug users out of a total of about 3,000 users in the city. He believes that number is now higher.
“The officers are noticing a number of out of province license plates around the safe consumption site and that may suggest that we’re seeing migration to the city as well. And then when we’re talking to the officers that are arresting some of the problematic behaviour…we’re seeing some evidence now that people are coming to Lethbridge for that purpose.”
He described members of the homeless population in Lethbridge’s downtown area as those who are ‘walking around wearing their life on their back.’
“As a result of that,” Davis explained, “we’re seeing an increase in anti-social behaviour, public intoxication, disturbances, loitering and panhandling, mischief – mischief being all encompassing – such as the damage to property…as well as the break and enters, smashing and grab from vehicles.”
He also told the committee not to have ‘tunnel vision’ and to recognize that while the purpose of the meeting was to address the opioid crisis in the city, methamphetamines are quickly taking the place of opioids and also need to be recognized as a huge issue.
Despite all of the incidents described, he also said they need to be taken with a grain of salt. Davis cited a public satisfaction survey the police service commissioned last spring, which shows that overall in the city, the perception of safety is still quite high. It’s during certain times of the day/night, that those who visit the downtown often may feel somewhat unsafe.
Because of the increase in drug-related negative behaviours, Davis says there is a need for better provincial legislation to deal with addicts and the homeless population in other ways, rather than simply ‘putting them in jail.’
“The big glaring gap that we see as the police – that I see as the Chief and being a member of the Alberta Chiefs is the lack of provincial legislation in this province that would allow for non-law enforcement/medical detention. In the province of Manitoba, they have legislation that allows for a person that is intoxicated to be taken to a facility that is operated and staffed by medical professionals who have the legal authority to detain the until they’re sober.”
Davis says the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police made a request of the province two years ago, and nothing has come of it. However, even if the legislation were in place now, there are no facilities to take those who could be medically detained until they are sober.
He also described the public demand for police to ‘lock up’ addicts or those using in public places, but told the committee they can’t do that all the time.
“We are duty bound by the constitution. We are duty bound by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And we are duty bound by the Criminal Code…we have zero wiggle room when it comes to those pieces of legislation. So, this concept that we can arbitrarily arrest and detain people indefinitely is completely false.”
Davis said in the future he hoped some of the gaps, including those tied to the other four pillars would be addressed if police were to effectively move forward.
“The police cannot do this alone. We need to be with all the stakeholders that are sitting here today. But also the community needs to be part of the solution.”
In the meantime, the number of officers assigned to the downtown is expected to double, while they are also negotiating a Class 6 Constable for the area, considering a new Ambassador Watch program and/or an auxiliary officer or a peace officer program and a potential Bear Clan initiative.
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