The Dignity of Choice

My first eight years as a police officer were spent working in the Downtown Eastside.  Besides being a community with a diverse population it is one that deals with drug use, criminal activity and prostitution.  But even in amongst all of this there are good people, great people, who call this area home.  By happenstance or by choice, some of them simply do not have a roof over their heads.

One of the first lessons I learned as a new officer was to treat everyone with dignity and respect, regardless of the area you were assigned to. When I look back on the lessons learned from my more senior and experienced squad mates an excellent example comes to mind.

One winter night my trainer and I stepped out of the Vancouver jail, which exited into the t-lane directly behind the police station on Main Street. Up at the far end of the lane I could just make out the silhouette of an officer pushing a man in a wheelchair and asked my trainer what the officer was doing.

My trainer explained the man in the wheelchair, John (not his real name), was well known in the Downtown Eastside as being an easygoing, affable man, and one who chose to live on the street.  When the cold proved to be too much for his aging body, John would wheel himself into the lane behind the station and, lacking the strength to wheel himself up the steep incline, would wait near a ramp.

Before long, an officer coming out of the jail would see him and would help by pushing John up the incline so he could position his wheelchair under a vent at the top.  Warm air blowing from the vent would envelope John, allowing him to ride out the night chill. 

He had been doing this for a long time, my trainer said, and if the officer ahead of us hadn’t been there it would have us pushing John to the top.  When asked, my trainer did not know why John didn’t go to a shelter, saying, “Maybe he doesn’t want to.”

A few hours later we stopped in to check on him only to find other officers had just come and gone, proof of which was the steaming styrofoam cup clasped between John’s hands.  He gave us a toothy grin when we walked by, and we raised a hand in return. 

By morning, John was gone from the ramp and on to whatever he did during the day, taking with him the dignity of his own choices.

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