Vancouver needs a sobering centre to keep intoxicated individuals out of jail, says the BC Civil Liberties Association.
B.C. has the highest rates of death in custody in Canada, according to a recent association report. Fifty-three per cent of the deaths between 1992 and 2007 were accidental, many of those caused by complications from alcohol and drug abuse.
These centres would provide intoxicated people with shelter for 24 hours and assist police in assessment around medical concerns.
David Eby, BC Civil Liberties executive director, said police do not want to be in the business of dealing with inebriated people.
“It’s not what they pictured when they signed up. They pictured Starsky and Hutch, not driving the bus full of drunk people around.”
Death in the drunk tank
Intoxicated people are at high risk of death in police custody, according to the civil liberties report. A drunk individual might aspirate vomit and choke, or die of acute alcohol poisoning.
Eby said that unconscious people should never be put in a cell.
“The three-quarter prone position doesn’t protect anyone, that’s just how people die.”
People arrested for public intoxication are currently taken to the Vancouver Detox centre either by police or the Saferide program.
However, the Detox centre can’t handle aggressive or troubled individuals, according to a preliminary report from the Davies Commission into the custody-related death of Frank Paul in 1998.
Related: Snapshot of sobering centres in BC
Intoxication as a medical issue
Paul, a man from the Mi’kmaq nation with chronic alcoholism and diverse health concerns, had been left in soaking wet clothing in an alley by police after they released him from custody in 1998. He died of hypothermia.
There is currently a sobering centre in Victoria (though it doesn’t accept intoxicated aggressive or violent individuals), and one planned for Surrey – but none in Vancouver.
Donald Macpherson, author of Vancouver’s Four Pillars Drug Strategy, first proposed sobering centres in Vancouver in the 1990s, as one of the key strategies to prevent deaths in police custody.
He said the centres allow chronic alcoholics to be treated as individuals “suffering from a severe health issue” as opposed to “someone who’s severely addicted and inebriated and often unconscious being placed in a cell, in a prison or jail.”
Macpherson said that a sobering centre is a place where keeping someone alive is the main concern.
The centres, which were first proposed in the 1990s, are one of the key strategies to preventing deaths in police custody, said Eby.
Remembering Frank Paul
On Nov. 8, a small but vocal protest by aboriginal activists took place outside the Frank Paul inquiry.
Two women held up large pictures of Paul for passing motorists to see.
Protesters laid out posters on the sidewalk with the names of people who have died in police-involved incidents.
“Let them hear us upstairs,” said Kat Norris from the Indigenous Action Movement, looking up the building’s exterior towards the sixth floor courtroom.
“That we are here, that we haven’t forgotten.”
The Vancouver Police Board passed a motion in 2009 supporting the development of a civilian-operated sobering centre for chronic alcoholics in response to the Paul case.
The VPD declined to speak about the issue of sobering centres, pending the conclusion of the Frank Paul Inquiry.