On December 4th, 2017, the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) publicly announced that they had conducted the first wave of arrests for “Project Mitigate,” a two-month operation in the downtown core. Seven individuals were arrested in this wave, 21 individuals have been identified. In the midst of an overdose epidemic, while other police departments refer people to harm reduction services, OPS police are proud to announce that they arrest them.
Overdose Prevention Ottawa (OPO) strongly condemns this initiative and the criminalization of people who use drugs.
This operation functioned unanimously to target members of our community who are homeless, use drugs, reside in shelters, and are amongst the most marginalized individuals in our community. Reverberating from this operation, people who are most at risk of death from overdose are criminalized, traumatized, and fearful of accessing life-saving health services.
As is demonstrated time and time again, coercive police actions aggravate public health issues and result in the compromised safety of the whole neighborhood. When someone is ripped from the community through a sting operation such as this one, trusted networks are disrupted and the violence and harm of the police actions reverberate through the drug using community.
Project Mitigate removed trusted members of the community from the streets who have lived and supported their community for an extended period of time. It is their consistent neighbourly presence and undisrupted familiarity that is essential to community safety and the health of people who are both regular suppliers and users of substances. Consistent street-level sellers care about to whom they are selling, the substance potency and advise their consumers accordingly. Consistency in supply and in relationships within the drug using community is essential to survival.
We know, from our front line work in this neighbourhood, that these very individuals are in fact active naloxone administrators, educators and advocates, who have saved many lives on the very block they were arrested. They have done more to comfort those struggling with addictions and homelessness, or combat lost lives and overdoses during this emergency than certain people who hide behind the guise of a community group, police or politicians have in their entire careers.
Street-level violence will increase as a result of this action. Drug sellers, often people who are themselves addicted to and paid in drugs, will compete for new turf. Additionally, people who use drugs are forced to seek out a new source for the substances they are dependent upon. This process is fraught with insecurity, exploitation, violence, and results in greater risk of death from poisoning. Furthermore, the disruption of drug markets does not result in a reduction of drug supply, nor a decrease in drug use. What these sting operations do accomplish is traumatizing, harming and putting at risk the community of individuals involved in the bottom of the chain of the drug market. Criminalization is not a means of making our community and streets safer, despite police and politician claims.
OPS and the routinely cowardly Mathew Fleury try to portray these people as criminals and vilify them as dangers to society, demonstrating their disconnection with the community.
Contrary to claims of escalating drug market violence, the only thing that has changed recently in Lowertown is the reinvigoration of anti-harm reduction actions, hate mongering and profiling by a few select people of community members who are living in poverty and use drugs.
As witnessed from the sheer hate and violence experienced by OPO volunteers and guests during our operation at 307 St. Patrick Street, the very individuals who harassed us, have now taken it upon themselves to relentlessly profile and photograph people who are accessing services at the trailer. This hate has led to the heightened police presence as well as police targeting and criminalization of people who use drugs in the area.
Unfortunately, Project Mitigate is no anomaly. When it comes to OPS’ response to poverty drug trade, this operation follows predictable police practice of profiling and criminalizing street-involved drug users who are surviving.
Past OPS busts have proven to traumatize and harm members of the community. The notorious “Operation Fire Cracker” of June 2012 (a supposed five-month investigation) was portrayed by Police Chief Bordeleau as an “outstanding” and “successful” practice. In reality, over 109 individuals (mainly people of colour and shelter residents) were arrested, and charged for a variety of petty crimes and charges, for violations like possession, panhandling, and expectorating, and a handful of other Safe Streets Act violations. The total value of street drugs seized per person worked out to pennies. This waste of resources and the obvious ineptitude of such actions result in severe trauma on a resilient population that is already relentlessly bombarded by prohibition, discrimination, oppression, poverty and criminalization in their day to day lives.
The war on drugs is a war on people and it must end. It is a costly war that fails to reduce drug use and has led to many despicable consequences such as overdose deaths, HIV and hepatitis C infections among people who use drugs, prison over-crowding, severe human rights violations, and an exacerbation of stigma, marginalization, violence and corruption. As practitioners of harm reduction delivering front-line service, we will work with our community to reduce the harms of this war and bring it to an end.