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Questioning the ACTION Team

Analyzing new policing tactics in downtown Hamilton

by with notes by downtown residentsMayday Staff Writer

The ACTION team policing a rally in Hamilton.
The ACTION team policing a rally in Hamilton.

From Mayday Magazine

The ACTION teams are a big part of the increased police presence here in the last year. However, there has been little in the way of critical examination of the role that ACTION is really playing in our communities. What are they doing? Who is benefiting?

ACTION stands for Addressing Crime Trends In Our Neighbourhoods, and there are fourty-three police officers participating, divided into five teams. Visibility is clearly one of their highest priorities. Their bright coats and their practice of approaching lots of people is geared towards created a strong presence in the downtown and in the other neighbourhoods they have chosen to target.

Their media strategy includes regular newsletters called ACTION Updates describing their activities, and a Twitter account for “ACTION Team 4” that is frequently updated while the teams are on patrol. They have also released two reports called Overview of Violence-Prone Areas in Hamilton reports, one as ACTION was starting, and the other six months later. These reports, the Twitter feed, and the ACTION Updates are the first places we turned to get answers to our questions.

The first Overview of Violence-Prone Areas in Hamilton report was released in March 2010. This document outlines the crime trends ACTION was formed to counter.  It “is aimed at reflecting/identifying the areas of high violent crime concentration within the City of Hamilton.” The report goes on to list the specific violent crimes that the report deals with: homicide, shooting, stabbing, person with weapon, robbery, sexual assault, assaults, and priority zero. Priority zero is defined as incidents where “where injury is occurring or is imminent.” Reports of these types of incidents are used to determine seventeen hot spots in the city where violent crimes are, according to this analysis, most likely to occur at what times.

This gives a very clear picture of what issues HPS claim they are addressing with ACTION – reducing the frequency of specific violent incidents in specific areas . A logical next step is to compare their stated goals to what they are actually doing.  Information about this is available on their Twitter page and in their ACTION Updates.

The Twitter feed is updated by Sgt Jay Turner of ACTION Team 4. Even a quick look at their  page shows that most of what they are dealing with are: minor drug offenses; crimes of poverty, like loitering and public drinking; and ticketable offenses. Here are a few sample posts, both from March 12th:

“We found three males sitting in a foggy car at the rear of the mall. They all had their marihuana and their bongs. Arrested!”

“We found one male with a newly purchased bottle alcohol and a probation condition to not have alcohol. Arrested!”

There are dozens of posts like this each month, but in the entire month of March, there is no mention of ACTION addressing even a single violent incident on either the Twitter feed or in the ACTION updates. These typically take pains to highlight the few violent incidents in which they are involved during other periods.

In response to questions about their tactics, the ACTION Updates state again and again, “It’s all about statistical crime analysis.”  But if they are not even dealing with the offenses that their statistics are covering, then how can they claim their actions to be based on those statistics? As well, their follow-up Overview of Violence Prone Areas report, released in November 2010, notes no decrease in violent crime. A chart in the March instalment of ACTION Update does claim that ACTION has resulted in a reduction of drug crimes and bail violations in target areas. However these are hardly the violent crimes that were used to justify this intensification of policing.

Mayday staff contacted Hamilton Poilice Services, but was unable to reach anyone from the ACTION team able to comment on the article prior to going to print.

One of ACTION’s key goals is to build up a presence within their target community, to form contacts with people, and to hear about their concerns. However, it is very obvious that the concerns of some people are valued more than those of others. For instance, an interview with Ruth Lewis, of the International Village Business Improvement Area, from the November 15th installment of ACTION Update, offers some clarity on what ACTION’s motivations.

Lewis says, “Since ACTION started, it’s significantly different – there are fewer sex workers and panhandlers. Overall, King St., from Mary to Emerald has cleared up.” She goes on to say,  “As entrepreneurs, we don’t need a lot. We just need a safe atmosphere for customers. Owners need an environment where businesses can grow. What we really appreciate is the small stuff is being addressed which we know will fend off the big stuff.”

Lewis clearly identifies sex workers and poor people as obstacles that business owners need to overcome in order to succeed, and that allowing these people to live alongside her paves the way towards violent crime -- the “big stuff” she refers to. ACTION prides itself on listening to the concerns of business owners. Considering this and their targetting of crimes of poverty like sex work and panhandling, you can take their printing of Lewis’ comments as an endorsement of her priorities.

While speaking with people in preparation for this article, it became clear that being approached by police means different things to different people. For many of the people spoken to, two police officers stopping to chat is an implicit threat:

In a conversation with the police, you are not able to disagree; you are not allowed to take offence, but need to be hyper-mindful of not offending; you cannot insist that your questions be answered, but if you refuse to answer a question, you can expect to be bullied. Many of the people spoken to felt this is especially true for the many people who are from marginalized communities or who have a history of legal trouble.

While researching this article, we spoke with someone who we will refer to as “Matthew”, whose recent experience with the ACTION team seems unfortunately to be typical of those we spoke with. Like everyone else, Matthew has requested to remain anonymous, expressing concern about retribution by police for speaking out on these issues.

Matthew was biking through the Durand neighbourhood in early March, in full accordance with the rules of the road, when three officers from the ACTION team, “grabbed me right between the shoulder blades and hauled me off the bike as I slowed for a stop sign”, Matthew recalls. The officers claim to have called for him to stop, but Matthew did not hear them. “They took me to the side of the street and put me in handcuffs right away,” Matthew continues. “They asked me if I had anything I shouldn’t. I said no. I said no a lot.”

When they asked Matthew where he was going, he refused to answer, and he then informed the officers that what they were doings was illegal. “But the cops said it didn’t matter [if it was illegal] because I was under arrest and they could do what they wanted.” They held him for a half hour while they searched his person and his belongings, then released him without charge or ticket.

We told Matthew’s story to “Sydney”, also not a real name, who does front-line social service work in Hamilton with people experiencing homelessness. Sydney felt that this kind of policing itself may create the conditions that lead to people’s arrest:

“Some of us can respond in a poor police experience with patience, maybe lodge a complaint later or even hire a lawyer if it’s a serious matter. But that patience is harder to muster for those of us with a brain injury; or that sense of injustice may be magnified for those of us who are aboriginal. So the potential for conflict with the law can be increased.”

This plays into the same “clearing up” mentality that Ruth Lewis spoke of above. Sydney continues,“In social work we sometimes have a tendency to over-individualize circumstances like this. We might only see that someone who responds angrily needs anger management. This limited understanding can end up entrenching a person in anger and alienation, and reinforcing the idea that downtown Hamilton is full of people to be fixed or gotten rid of.”

What is the ACTION really trying to do in our neighbourhoods? Who is benefitting from their actions, and who is simply being “cleared up”? And how does ACTION fit into issues of gentrification occuring in the downtown? Hopefully, this article has demonstrated that there are pressing reasons to ask these questions. But this is only the beginning.

We will be publishing a follow-up piece about ACTION and policing in the downtown in the next few months. Mayday Magazine is looking for your stories and experiences to include in this piece. How have the recent changes to policing here affected you? Send your contributions to editor@maydaymagazine.caThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , and they will be passed on to the writer.

Anonymous submissions are welcome, just be sure to use a public computer, or to connect through a proxy server, while using a throw-away email account. For more information on sending anonymous email, visit here:

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