After Vancouver Police Constable Steve Addison realized he'd made a rookie error – arresting a woman who had an uncapped needle within arms-reach that she could have used to stab him – he didn't try to hide his mistake.
He wrote a blog about it.
That post, titled "Wake-Up Call," is just one of many that Constable Addison, who works in the Downtown Eastside with the Vancouver Police Department, has written since September in his blog, Eastside Stories: Diary of a Vancouver Beat Cop.
Constable Addison was a newspaper reporter, but turned to policing about five years ago. "I was 25 and didn't want to go to city council meetings for the next 40 years," he says.
He records unflinching accounts on the blog, from the woman who, "on a good night," will sell her body to 10 different men to make enough money to get high, to the young man with three degrees who is addicted to heroin and sells drugs to support his habit.
"Do you really know what it's like to see the misery? To smell it? To taste it in the air?" he wrote in the introduction to his blog. "I do." His goal, he says, is to give readers a "front-line, unfiltered" look at life in the Downtown Eastside. Authenticity is what drives his blog, he says. "I think if I started waxing on about my opinions, I'd lose a lot of people. They want to hear people's stories."
While some critics say the blog turns the people in it into caricatures, Constable Addison responds that it's intended to be educational.
He started the blog because he wanted to help those outside the Downtown Eastside better understand the community he's worked in for the past 4½ years. "I'm here to give them voice and to help other people understand the kind of world they're living in, because nobody should have to live in that kind of world," he said. The stories are meant as cautionary tales too, with teachers and parents telling him they use the blog to teach kids about drugs and addiction.
His posts, which range from frustrated accounts of what he sees as failures in the system to light-hearted portrayals of the characters he meets, are surprisingly personal. In one, about the man with three degrees, Constable Addison wrote: "This man was smarter than I will ever be, yet it's worthless to him. … But for a few choices, he could be in my shoes and I in his."
Although Constable Addison has the force's support for the blog, which bears the official VPD logo on its top banner, he said his posts are not vetted. Still, he's aware that he's representing the Vancouver Police. Certain things – cases before the courts or details about investigations – he won't write about.
The initial idea for the blog came from Constable Addison, although it is now a part of the VPD's overall social media and community outreach strategy. After the Stanley Cup riot in June, the force took to social media not only to identify rioters, but also to relay information such as Skytrain closings. The force is also active on YouTube, Flickr, and Twitter.
Diary is not the first VPD blog. Constable Sandra Glendinning has been writing about being part of the dog squad in Behind the Blue Line since 2008. Constable Jana McGuinness, a VPD spokeswoman, said these blogs help give the force a face to the public. "It's always good, we find, that the public hear from front-line officers and understand what it's like policing," she said.
And people are paying attention. The diary blog gets an average of 15,000 hits a month, and dozens of comments each post.
But not everyone is impressed. Constable Addison sparked controversy earlier this month, after he was asked by the VPD to live-tweet a shift. One tweet, about a man who he refers to as First Agent Condor, which read: "He thinks he's a secret police agent. Love it!" drew fire from critics.
"Instead of making fun of poor people with mental health issues, maybe there's a better use of the @vancouverPD account," wrote David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. Constable Addison responded by saying he hadn't meant to offend, and that Agent Condor is a good friend.
Others go further in their criticism. Michael Stewart, a writer for the blog Rabble, accuses Constable Addison of exploiting and sensationalizing the very community he's trying to help. Diary "further marginalizes the DTES residents by portraying them as caricatures rather than as fully formed human beings," Mr. Stewart wrote recently .
"The people I see every day are exploited enough," Constable Addison said in response. "I'm not here to exploit them any more." The blog, he said "is not intended to be voyeuristic. It's intended to be enlightening and educational and informative. It's meant to be a good thing. Not a bad thing."
Constable Addison initially became a reporter, he said, to "write the kind of stories people would tear out of the newspaper and put on their fridge." The blog, he feels, has that kind of impact.
"A comment on the blog I got last night from a recovering addict for 2½ years told me he was moved by it," he said. "To me, that's huge."
The officer listens
Excerpts from Constable Addison's blog:
On people's perceptions of police:
"Few people are watched as closely in the Downtown Eastside as the police. Those who don't understand this place or what we do sometimes paint us as insensitive, uncaring and heavy-handed. Others just wish we would go away. It's frustrating."
From "Welfare Wednesday":
"The bar is almost empty, but my car has now become a magnet for drunk people who want to be my friend. One girl taps on the passenger window to tell me a joke … Yet another tells me I'm gorgeous and asks for my phone number (ok, she couldn't have been that drunk)."
"I look over my shoulder to see a drunk guy urinating on the steps of the Royal Bank. I berate him and tell him this isn't a barnyard. He apologizes, zips up his fly, and extends his arm for a handshake. Given the circumstances, I decline."
On his frustrations about "the system":
"And while it's often frustrating to watch people with mental illness get let down by the system, and to witness what sometimes seems like a revolving door at the courthouse, few things are quite as maddening as the apathy and acceptance people in the Downtown Eastside have toward crime. I've never seen a place that works so hard to protect predators, bullies and cheats … Too many times I've responded to a domestic assault where the victim claims she fell down. Too many times I've found a stabbing victim surrounded by a crowd of witnesses who claim they saw nothing. And too many times I've been snookered at the door of a shelter, a needle exchange or a supervised injection site by a staff member who claims my presence makes their 'clients' feel uncomfortable."
From his conversation with a drug addict:
" 'I made my choice. I'm a heroin addict and I'll die a heroin addict,' he said. It broke my heart to hear."
"People say police officers are not front-line social workers. I beg to differ. I'm certainly not one to lecture or pontificate to addicts about the perils of their addiction. They don't need to be talked down to. And though I sometimes struggle with my own vices, I'm not about to tell an addict I can relate to what they're going through because of my own addiction to, say, caffeine or exercise or late-night blogging. Besides, this guy wasn't looking for answers. He needed someone to listen."