Before he became a police officer walking the beat on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Cst. Steve Addison thought he knew just how tough a place the neighbourhood was.
But it wasn’t until he actually began working there in 2007 – a year after leaving a successful journalism career with Peace Arch News – that the then-rookie constable with the Vancouver Police Department truly got a sense for the place, fraught as it is with drug addiction, crime and violence.
Now, Addison is hoping to bring some of his experiences to the public in the form of a new blog, Eastside Stories, which he started this month on the VPD website.
“The blog is an idea that had been floating around in my head for a while, since I started really,” said Addison, who works on the Downtown Eastside’s Beat Enforcement Team.
“I’m probably never going to work in a place like this ever again – it’s one of the most unique policing environments in North America.
“There’s a million other things to do in the police department, and if I’m never going to work in a place like this again, I figured I should document it, at least for myself, if nothing else.”
Last spring, Addison finally broached the idea of writing a blog with his bosses, who were intrigued, and approved it.
“When I left the Peace Arch News, everyone kept saying, ‘you should write about what it’s like being a cop.’ But I didn’t feel it was appropriate to do it right away.
“There’s a pretty steep learning curve when you become a cop, and even more so when you’re a rookie on the Downtown Eastside, and I don’t think anyone wants to read what a guy two weeks out of the police academy thinks.”
But now that he’s been walking the beat for a few years, Addison has a pretty good grasp on the area and its people. And the reality is, it’s far worse than what you might see on TV.
“Speaking from my own experience, you think you know, but you don’t. You don’t get a good enough idea of the people and what it’s like unless you’re down here… you walk around, you smell it, you experience it firsthand,’ he said.
In his blog, Addison writes about alleys smelling of urine and human feces, addicts ravaged by drug addiction and mental illness, and small rooming houses infested with rats and bugs.
“I see the worst moments of humanity and have a front row seat to people at their lowest,” he writes in one entry.
Even in the first few posts on Eastside Stories, it’s evident that Addison and his VDP colleagues go to great lengths to form relationships with many of the area’s residents – helping them when they can, being compassionate when the situation calls for it, all while protecting the public and upholding the law.
“There are so many drug dealers and so many addicts, and there’s not enough (police officers) to arrest them all, so we do use some discretion,” he said. “That’s not to say we’re easy on people – there are people here who need to be arrested, and we arrest them.
“You just try not to make it personal. There are people getting in trouble who we deal with all the time – we know who the frequent fliers are – but they understand we have a job to do, and sometimes I’m going to have to put the handcuffs on them.
“But if you treat people with respect, you’ll get respect back.”
The challenge, Addison said, will be to keep the blog updated enough to keep readers coming back.
“I’m not much of a diary keeper, but if you have an audience, you want to do as good a job as you can. The blogs that I always return to are the ones that are updated regularly,” he said. “When you create something like this, you’ve got to feed the beast.”
What Addison says the blog won’t become is his own soapbox, where he’ll voice personal opinions on subjects surrounding the Downtown Eastside – like safe-injection site, Insite, for example – simply to stir up debate.
“Debate is great, because it effects change, but I don’t think I have to be controversial. This place is controversial enough, so just mentioning the word ‘Insite’ will get people talking without me having to say anything else,” he said.
“I don’t have to be the guy who stokes the fire. Instead, I’ll chop the kindling, I’ll crumple up the newspapers, and I’ll leave the matches on the table for someone else.”
Addison’s blog, Eastside Stories, can be found at www.beatcopdiary.vpd.ca