News / Toronto

Drug harm reduction partnership with police irks Toronto outreach community

Involving police in outreach program could scare people away from accessing programs such as needle exchange

Gary James Thompson, an outreach worker in Toronto, believes a partnership between Toronto Public Health and the police is doing more harm than good.

Liz Beddall/ Metro

Gary James Thompson, an outreach worker in Toronto, believes a partnership between Toronto Public Health and the police is doing more harm than good.

A drug harm reduction program in Toronto is drawing the ire of the very community it is supposed to help.

The Street Outreach project began in October as a partnership between Toronto Public Health, the John Howard Society and the Toronto police. The program offers assistance to people dealing with substance abuse, homelessness, poverty and mental health issues.

During the six-month pilot project, plainclothes police officers have been working alongside outreach workers.

According to police Supt. Scott Baptist, the partnership allows officers to take a “proactive” approach to addiction issues.

“We’ve been criticized in the past for being too enforcement oriented,” he said.

However, harm reduction advocates say involving police in the program sends the wrong message.

“The police is the most comprehensive tool in reinforcing prohibition and we know you comprehend the magnitude of the negative role the police play in the lives of people who use drugs,” the Toronto Drug Users Union wrote in an open letter to public health officials.

Through it’s The Works program, Toronto Public Health offer a needle exchange programs, medical testing and a methadone clinic.

Gary James Thompson, a former homeless person and community worker in Toronto, is concerned people will be less likely to access those services because of the police presence.

“Police aren’t trained to deal with the people on the streets. They traumatize them, right?” he said.

If drug users shun things like needle exchanges, the result could be an increase in illnesses like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, as well as potential drug overdoses, the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance said in a statement.

Both the alliance and the Drug Users Union have called for an end to the partnership.

Baptist said the police will continue to consult with outreach workers to address any concerns.

“So much of this is perceptions rather than the truth,” Thompson said.