Two hours ago I was walking home through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The DTES is Canada’s poorest postal code, crammed full of impoverished folks (many with addiction or mental health issues) living in appalling conditions. It’s not particularly dangerous if you’re just passing through and not bothering anyone, but there are always a lot of cops around because they always have plenty of excuses to hassle the locals.
Sure enough, as I was walking along with my hands in my pockets and a newspaper under my arm, a cop car pulled to a stop on the street beside me. One of the cops inside said, “Hey.” I responded, “Hey,” and kept walking. But they flashed their lights and got out of the car, so I stopped to talk to them.
One of the cops asked what I was doing and I said I was going home. He asked if I was from around here and I told them I live in the West End. Then he asked for my ID. I asked why and he said they were “looking for someone.” I didn’t like it, but I didn’t want to cause any trouble and I knew cops are dangerous when their authority is questioned, so I handed over my old but valid out-of-province driver’s license. (That was my second mistake, and it went against my better judgement. My first mistake was answering their questions in the first place. Don’t talk to cops.)
The cop got back in the car to look me up. While he was doing that, I struck up a conversation with his partner — another mistake, really, but it turned out to be for the best. This second cop was a rookie, still in training; he’d only been on the streets for about a week and a half. As a result, he was friendly and naive and didn’t have the usual cop demeanor. He even smiled when I showed a personal interest in him.
“What do you think of the job so far?” I asked him.
His face lit up. “I like it. It’s been pretty fun.”
“What do you think your partner would have done if I hadn’t handed over my license?”
“I don’t know. He’s kind of tough.”
“Why do you figure he stopped me?”
“He’s been around this neighborhood for a while and he didn’t recognize you.”
The first cop was still trying to look me up, so I got out my cell phone, called an anarchist friend of mine who I’d left at a bus stop ten minutes earlier, and told him what was going on — not so much because I was worried as out of sheer amazement that this was actually happening, and because I knew my friend would be very interested indeed. And I was right: he was angry that I’d been asked for ID for no reason, asked if we were living in a fascist country (we aren’t, yet), and reminded me of my rights. I already knew them, of course. (Note for people living in Canada: you don’t have to talk to the cops. If they stop you, ask if you’re being detained. If you are, ask why; if not, you’re free to go. If you’re under arrest, you have to identify yourself, but you still don’t have to answer any other questions.)
As I was hanging up, the first cop got out of the car and asked if I had any BC ID. I said I didn’t (“You don’t drive?” “No.”), and he gave me back my license and asked me once again where I live. I repeated, “The West End.” He asked for my address, but I was tired of cooperating, so I responded, “Am I being detained?”
Cops don’t give a straight answer to that one. This one acted surprised and said, “I’m just asking you some questions. Do you know why we wanted to talk to you?”
I told him what his partner had told me. I almost felt bad about it, because I knew the rookie would be getting in trouble for giving the game away like that.
“That,” the cop said, “and we’re looking for someone who matches your description.”
“What, a guy with a beard and a hat?”
“And glasses, and a blue jacket,” he added, as if those two extra details mattered — it still fit dozens of other people I’d seen in the last ten minutes. “I take it you won’t be answering any more questions?”
I explained that I don’t like it when cops stop me and ask to see my ID for no reason, and asked if I was free to go. He told me I was, so I got his badge number (I didn’t bother with the rookie) and left.
I was lucky. I wasn’t carrying ID with my current address, and I don’t have anything on my record anyway, nor did I have anything in my possession that might have gotten me into trouble. (The laptop with the Community Watch Area: Police Not Welcome sticker was at home.) Also, I’m white and I don’t look especially poor. Under different circumstances, the encounter could easily have turned into a disaster.
Still, I wish I had exercised my rights from the beginning. I was doing nothing wrong — unless simply being in the DTES is suspicious behavior (and for the cops, it probably is) — and the rookie’s comments made it clear that they weren’t actually stopping me for any particular reason, except to demonstrate their authority over the people they claim to serve and protect.
Remember when “Ihre Papiere, bitte” was a criticism of totalitarian states?