By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on June 11, 2020.
and Rebecca Runions
The Watch was established in Lethbridge in 2019 in order to “increase the perception of public safety” (Lethbridge Police Service’s 2018 Annual report.) The volunteer-run program received $1.2 million of taxpayers’ money over its first two years. However, there are growing concerns amongst community members who are questioning the efficacy of this program, and proposing Watch funding be re-allocated to support harm reduction and re-housing initiatives.
We spoke to former Watch volunteers, academics, social workers and harm-reduction specialists on the frontline of homelessness, policing, and outreach initiatives, as well as everyday citizens concerned about the frequency of violence and racial profiling enacted by Watch volunteers against the unhoused population in Lethbridge’s downtown core.
One community member spoke to The Watch’s “colonial legacy of the militia-based policing of marginalized bodies and lives in North America” stating: “Rather than providing meaningful and actionable care and resources, The Watch roams the downtown area, intimidating and abusing marginalized people while being celebrated by white settlers. Nothing proved that more clearly to me than when I saw four separate Watch members, on two different occasions, approach an Indigenous person who appeared to be experiencing an overdose and choose to kick that person to see if they were alive, rather than speaking to them” (Jamie Lewis, recent graduate).
A Community Support Worker says The Watch have “repeatedly approached clients [they] have worked with in aggressive ways that scare and startle individuals” and “[do] not understand individual’s state or mental health and that many of those they approach live with invisible disabilities such as FASD, [and] ASD.”
One previous Watch member even spoke to the “inherent prejudice” of the program, describing how they wear “a uniform white people can run to.” These community concerns are supported by feminist legal scholar Dr. Caroline Hodes, who commented: “a group like ‘The Watch’ follows an outdated and inappropriate crime control model that has no place in LethbridgeÉ ‘The Watch’ have developed a reputation for putting people’s personal security at greater risk and for discrimination, harassment, and violence.”
Community members have various ideas as to how the money could be reallocated, with the intention of helping the most vulnerable populations in Lethbridge. These include a new treatment centre, a drop-in center, and housing initiatives; as the budget for The Watch was originally cut from the Housing First program. A former member of The Watch stated that “[a]t best it is a referral program, and is simply a Band Aid effort to improve the lives of the homeless population and increase public *perception* of safety. Funds are much better spent on housing, support and harm-reduction strategies than on a group of people with radios and no real authority.”
Unhoused communities in Lethbridge deserve programs that are informed by best practices for support, and we call on city council to hear the thousands of people who have signed our petition and mobilized their voices for this cause. In fact, our proposal supports the key strategies of the City of Lethbridge’s Reconciliation Implementation Plan (2017-2027), where the City expresses its commitment to “[s]upport alternative forms of community justice initiatives to divert individuals from criminal justice processes for minor offences to more culturally relevant restorative justice processes framed around healing and rehabilitation.”
As Dr. Hodes suggests, “given the recent and overwhelming support for the BLM movement and the transnational public outcry against police violence, you need to find more productive, community enhancing ways to spend this money.” Ultimately, in the words of one community member, “When Black/Indigenous/people of colour say The Watch has not done much for them, you should listen” (Poahksikakii B. Child).
Jaisie Walker (they/them) is a graduate student at the University of Lethbridge whose anti-violence research with rural LGBTQ2S+ non/monogamous communities has received international recognition for research excellence, public policy and social change. They have over seven years of experience in non-profit governance, community education, and crisis intervention through positions in women’s shelters, harm reduction programs, and resource centres across Lethbridge and area.
Rebecca Runions (she/her) is a third-year Biology student at the University of Lethbridge who has experience volunteering in the downtown area. She has a passion for cultivating safe communities and hopes to work towards the implementation of necessary programs that assist Lethbridge’s most targeted and under-resourced populations.