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Vancouver police targeted by activist group

A U.S. human rights group is accusing Vancouver police of abusing drug dealers in the city's notorious Downtown Eastside as part of a controversial crackdown.

But police say the report by Human Rights Watch lacks credibility and that parts may have been fabricated.

The New York-based human rights organization's report cited numerous allegations of police misconduct and abuse of process during a month-old campaign in the area that targets drug dealers.

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But the police officer overseeing the crackdown in the blighted area around Main and Hastings streets suggested Wednesday the authors were ignorant of Canadian law.

Inspector Doug LePard said the group relied on hearsay, "double hearsay" and even fabricated comments from some of those who were allegedly abused.

In the report, Abusing the User: Police Misconduct, Harm Reduction and HIV/AIDS in Vancouver, the authors say the crackdown has driven injection drug users away from services there to help them. This raises a fear of increased spread of HIV in an area already ravaged by HIV/AIDS.

The report also contained comments from people who described their mistreatment to the authors - including excessive force and arbitrary arrest.

"Our impression is that the crackdown is extremely heavy-handed and people are being driven out of reach of life-saving services," Jonathan Cohen, one of the report's authors, said at a news conference at a church in the Downtown Eastside.

He and a colleague spent four days conducting their research, talking to 26 injection drug users, about a dozen health experts and outreach workers.

Mr. Cohen acknowledged that he and his colleague had not witnessed any police abuse except a "strip search" of one person done in public.

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"That was probably the most egregious incident of abuse we ourselves saw," Mr. Cohen said.

But Insp. LePard doubted the allegation.

"I don't know the circumstances and they [Human Rights Watch]don't know either," he said.

"It's not something we do in a public place. We know the law and we know what the Supreme Court of Canada says about that."

Insp. LePard said the report lacked credibility.

"The rest of it [the alleged abuses]mostly is people reporting hearsay or double hearsay in which they say someone reported to them that someone else reported that they'd seen something."

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None of the people, who used pseudonyms in the report, were present at the news conference and Mr. Cohen said he wouldn't reveal their identities.

Insp. LePard said a Downtown Eastside advocacy organization known as PIVOT had members with video cameras following police before the Human Rights Watch researchers came to the city.

"PIVOT followed us with video cameras and they (Human Rights Watch) were here for four days and the one single incident that they saw was a strip search," Insp. LePard said.

Insp. LePard cited examples in the report that suggest some incidents or comments were made up.

One person, Gerald B., said he police went through his pockets without his consent and he remarked, "What did I do wrong, other than living in the poorest zip code in Canada?"

Insp. LePard said a Canadian would have said "postal code," not the American phrase "zip code."

Other people, said the report, were threatened by police with "vagrancy" violations but Insp. LePard said vagrancy has been off the books for decades and that young officers not only would never use such a term but might not even know what it means.

"There is no such offence," Insp. LePard said.

Another man, identified in the report as Gary L., said police grabbed him on an outstanding drug warrant and put him in cuffs and "leg irons."

Insp. LePard said he has never seen leg irons "outside of the movies."

He didn't want to give the impression that police were perfect, either.

"I'm not saying misconduct never occurs. I'm saying this is not a credible report. They never produce evidence."

He wondered why other organizations in the area mandated to help the disadvantaged had apparently not heard of the alleged abuse.

"How is that none of the other service providers who are not working for us, providers down there for a long time, they are not getting these reports of police misconduct?"

As of Wednesday, Insp. LePard said there had been no complaints of abuse lodged with the police department.

The drug crackdown began April 6 and was to last three months.

The epicentre of drug sales, near the corner of Main and Hastings, used to have as many as 150 dealers a day.

"Some have not left but others have found more covert ways to do their dealing," Insp. LePard.

"We never thought we were going to eliminate that. We wanted to eliminate the disorder in public spaces so everyone is free to have a sense of safety."

Mr. Cohen said the city drug abuse strategy in the area - the so-called "four pillars" approach of enforcement, treatment, harm reduction and prevention - isn't working because of too heavy an emphasis on enforcement.

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