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The danger of crisis policy making

Should people like this determine Vancouver's future? Absolutely not, David Eby says. Photo by Joshua Hergesheimer.

A crisis is the worst moment to propose a new policy or law, or to revisit the use of an old one. Rights violations like the unprecedented use of the War Measures Act, the internment of Japanese Canadians, and Mahar Arar’s detention and torture are all closely linked to “exceptional” policy proposals made in a time of crisis. Rather than relying on carefully crafted policies made in sober times of reflection and anticipation of crisis, the old rules never seem good enough, or fast enough, for law makers to respond to the crisis at hand. Shortcuts must be taken to protect the public.

 As a result, in this unique atmosphere of the first week after Vancouver’s most recent riot, we should be very wary of the fact that there is an election around the corner for our city. What unfortunate policy prescriptions are being written up on the back of envelopes right now to respond to last week’s disaster?

 Unfortunately, if there is any shortage of ideas among the election team members of the mayoral candidates for quick fix policy or law changes, there many people with “helpful” policy suggestions at the ready. We can only hope that Gregor Robertson and Suzanne Anton avoid the bait of these policy shortcuts that cause more problems than they fix.

 BIA spokesperson, and former VPD officer Dave Jones, opined in the media that more surveillance cameras could be useful. Not that a shortage of cameras seems to have been an issue during the riot. And, by the way, he thinks the police should have blasted the rioters (and everyone else who lives or works downtown and couldn’t get away) with their untested sound cannon.

 A number of people, including Gary Mason in the Globe and Mail, suggest that the answer could have been more police downtown. Of course the answer is more police – the answer is always more police, no matter what the crime is or its source. It’s hard to imagine that anything less than one officer per citizen downtown would have wrapped things up quickly on the night of the riot.

 As things stand right now, “more police” has become the dominant purpose of our city with law enforcement sucking up millions more in tax dollars than parks, markets, libraries and other social goods, with no sign that its appetite is waning, despite a significantly declining crime rate. Canada spent almost a billion dollars on G8-G20 summit security and there was still a riot in downtown Toronto where windows were smashed and police cars burned. If a billion dollars won’t stop a riot, can we really spend enough, ever, to guarantee a riot won’t happen?

 “There were too many people downtown!” I heard a caller tell the CBC. The caller’s solution was obvious, to her. We should stop having major events in the core. But other cities, including our own, have been able to assemble successfully in the past – if they can do it, do we have to surrender all future opportunities to get together and celebrate or commiserate? Are we just too immature to host a party? I hope not.

 I don’t pretend to have the answer about how to prevent sports riots. People much smarter than I am have struggled with this issue in Europe for decades around football match thuggery. But what is clear is that wasting money on surveillance cameras, more police, and canceling all major public events going forward isn’t going to get us the long term results that we’re all looking for, or the kind of city we want to live in.

 Whatever the policy solution is that will prevent another hockey riot in Vancouver, it’s extremely unlikely to come in advance of the next municipal election as a platform plank, and it’s unlikely to fit in a single sentence.

 A commitment from our two candidates for mayor to a long term process to seek solutions to safe celebration that are economically responsible, permit us to continue assembling as a city to celebrate (or to commiserate), and that avoid large scale rights or privacy violations, would fill me, and I’m sure many others, with much more confidence than an assertion from any candidate that they have The Answer to The Problem.

 As for identifying The Answer, or even the source of The Problem, it will take a long term, cooperative effort for us to move forward in a constructive, and, ironically, not a destructive, way.

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