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Surrey RCMP officer says police need to develop trusting relationships

Langley RCMP hosts meeting to ‘learn best practices’ when dealing with homelessness issue
Brenda Prosken, director of regional operations for BC Housing, presenting to a room of about 20 police officers on the former encampment at 135A and introduction of modular housing. (Photo: Lauren Collins)

Surrey RCMP Sergeant Trevor Dinwoodie says police officers need to stop criminalizing the addicted and instead go after the people giving the vulnerable the drugs.

Dinwoodie, along with Corporal Scotty Schumann, presented to a group of about 20 police officers from detachments across the mainland including Surrey, Chilliwack, Squamish, Abbotsford, New Westminster, North Vancouver and Ridge Meadows. Dinwoodie’s presentation focused mainly around the encampment at 135A and how the local RCMP took a different approach to dealing with the homeless situation.

Brenda Prosken, the regional operations director for BC Housing in the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley, also spoke to the situation and eventual outcome on 135A Street.

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The presentation was hosted by the Langley RCMP on Thursday (Sept. 27).

Langley RCMP Staff Sergeant Wayne Baier said these meetings were started by his predecessor as a homelessness working committee with officers from different jurisdictions. Since then, Baier said, he began to bring in different speakers such as representatives from BC Housing, legal advisors and the intensive case management teams.

“We try to learn from each other best practices; what works, what doesn’t work because we’re not going to solve it (the homelessness issue).”

Homelessness, Baier said, is not a crime, but officers need to work with other partners to find solutions. He added the point of these quarterly meetings is to see if other detachments can implement ideas they’ve heard through the meetings.

“Everybody has a different approach. Everybody has different obstacles,” Baier said.

Dinwoodie spoke to the group about the Surrey Outreach Team and how it began operating around 135A Street.

RELATED: Surrey Outreach Team strives to show compassion, target dealers

Historically, Dinwoodie said, police officers had the “foot beat” which was aimed at getting “stats, stats, stats” with constant arrests. Dinwoodie said he and Schumann were part of that team in the early 2000s which was all about going out, making arrests, processing the suspects, releasing them and then repeating the process.

“This was probably the most ineffective policing strategy we have ever had,” said Dinwoodie, adding that people are still dealing with the fallout. He said a lot of people saw that as a barrier because they would “end up getting a criminal record that’s four pages long” and would then have a hard time getting sober or getting a job.

“It was the wrong approach, but we didn’t know any better at the time,” Dinwoodie said.

In was in 2016, Dinwoodie said, that things began to get worse in Whalley. There was a bad batch of crack cocaine that was mixed with fentanyl that led to officers attending about 15 overdoses per day, as well as “unprecedented violence” on 135A, he said.

“We knew we had to do something.”

Dinwoodie said his superintendent came to him knowing Dinwoodie had been on the foot beat years earlier. The superintendent, Dinwoodie said, asked him to design a new foot beat.

Dinwoodie said he came back with an operational plan not too different to the one in the early 2000s. The superintendent, he said, marked it up with a red pen and told him to try again. Dinwoodie said it took three to four tries before he came up with something different.

In the first month, Dinwoodie said, the project ran with overtime staff and began operating out of a temporary office. Not long after, Dinwoodie said he began networking with BC Ambulance Service, non-profits and Surrey bylaw officers, adding that he had a different approach by wanting to get to know the community.

An RCMP officer asked Dinwoodie how to take the idea of the outreach team and implement it in a smaller community. He said the key is to collaborate and form partnerships and then go out and meet the people and develop trusting relationships.

“And only then can you do anything with those people. Until they trust you, you’re dead in the water. They won’t deal with you. They want to deal with the care providers.”

There was a historical preconception, Dinwoodie said, that RCMP would drive into the area and arrest anyone that was using.

“We needed to get rid of that and we needed to build the trust of all the people.”

And that trust takes a certain kind of officer, Schumann said.

“The members that are hunters, are probably not the best fit (for an outreach team). You need people that are better communicators and more community-minded to sort of start with the outreach and build those relationships.”

Part of the responsibility with dealing with the homeless, Schumann said, is keeping them safe.

“The way you do that is not by arresting the street-level drug dealer, it’s by arresting the many of the guys who are loading the area. Those are the people that you want to target, that are targeting specifically the vulnerable people in that community.”

One of the officers at the meeting said that while he understood gaining people’s trust, he wondered how the team dealt with warrants since the Surrey Outreach Team’s approach was “not so enforcement based.”

Dinwoodie said the officers would deal with warrants how any officer would, adding that they were “not turning a blind eye.”

“Every single one of us knows the vast majority of those warrants are out within two hours,” Dinwoodie said. “That zero-tolerance policy, we need to move away from that. We need to stop criminalizing the addicted. We need to go after the guys that are feeding them and we need to go after them hard; make it uncomfortable for them to work in those communities.”

Dinwoodie was also asked if there was an end date for the project when the Surrey Outreach Team was started. He said the commitment to the City of Surrey was two years.

“Hopefully we would solve it all in two years. We had lofty goals and I don’t know if anyone ever believed we would get there, but now, we created some good out of this.”

The outreach team was launched in early 2017. On June 21, 2018 with the help of bylaw, BC Housing and volunteers, more than 150 people on 135A Street were moved to modular housing or shelter.

RELATED: BC Housing provides update as homeless move into Surrey modular homes

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Moving forward, Dinwoodie said, there is “no appetite to shut down Surrey Outreach Team.”

“If anything, they’re talking about expanding it from just one community and moving it out to the other four districts in some way, shape or form.”

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Lauren Collins

About the Author: Lauren Collins

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media's national team, after my journalism career took me across B.C. since I was 19 years old.
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