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Touched by an angel: Abbotsford police program connects with drug users

Project Angel seeks to dismantle barriers between cops and users through a more compassionate approach
Const. Ian MacDonald and Kiah Ashley run the Abbotsford Police Department’s Project Angel, a program that draws expertise from those with lived experience with addictions and homelessness to help divert those currently living that experience from the criminal justice system. Dustin Godfrey/Abbotsford News

Const. Ian MacDonald and Kiah Ashley form an unlikely partnership.

The police and those with lived experience of substance use and homelessness have a long, challenging history. But as MacDonald and Ashley crack jokes in a boardroom in the Abbotsford Police Department (APD) community policing office, they offer living proof of how relationships can take a 180-degree turn for the positive.

Today, a cop and a person with that lived experience can sit in the same room and find recently discovered common ground, as silos that separate the institutions from the community’s most vulnerable groups are slowly dismantled.

At the centre of that common ground sits Project Angel, the APD’s six-month-old pilot program seeking to combat the overdose crisis that continues to shake B.C.

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“You might not think that this would be a natural partnership – it actually was. I think when people are from the same place in terms of wanting to help people, I think it is actually more of a natural partnership than some might imagine,” says MacDonald, the APD constable taking on the administrative role of Project Angel.

But as a police officer, MacDonald acknowledges the history between the police and marginalized communities – specifically substance users – and the baggage that comes with it.

“You can have a police officer, you can have a firefighter, you can have an ambulance attendant, you can have a bylaw officer who is a super compassionate, super caring person. But sometimes just the uniform can bring the perception of an agenda, like it’s something bigger,” he says.

That baggage is where Ashley and her squad of “angels” come in.

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The angels are a diverse crew – aged 21 to 50 and anywhere from two years to two decades of lived experience, including LGBTQ+ and Indigenous representation – but MacDonald said they’re always looking to expand and diversify further. The crew skews toward women over men, and they have no Punjabi speakers at the moment.

Their mandate, since Nov. 26 last year, has been to attend to those whose complex needs – be they related to substance use, mental health or housing – have often led to encounters with the criminal justice system.

“I never, ever would have thought I’d be mentored by a few police officers, and that’s exactly what’s happening,” Ashley says. “I’m feeling validated by … individuals that maybe before I would have felt threatened or intimidated by.”

Every one of the nine support workers, Ashley included, come with lived experience and that offers them some credibility, trust and the ability to connect with their clients in ways that effectively no one in a uniform could.

Ashley notes the example of one youth who was brought into the APD’s holding cells before the angels were called in.

“I was a bit of a rogue youth, and I remember going into the cells that day to see her, and she was just this terrified little thing, but she was also a little spitfire. I just looked at her and I just thought, ‘Oh my God, this is me 15 to 20 years ago.’ I thought, literally, I could have been sitting in that exact same cell. It’s surreal,” Ashley says.

She says no one thing in particular brought her to the APD holding cells in years past, but her story isn’t so different from most of those you’ll hear on the streets and among those whose substance use has brought them in conflict with the law.

“I had struggles very, very young. I had a lot of trauma in my life, and that trauma made me very angry,” Ashley says, adding that she tended to act out. “Generally, when you act out in anger, it’s not usually very helpful, and you tend to be harmful to yourself and others.”

Those are the lessons that Project Angel looks to draw from. Problematic behaviours generally don’t exist in a vacuum, MacDonald says: “Just dig deeper, and you will see trauma there.”

APD officers account for about 50 per cent of referrals to Project Angel, while anyone from paramedics and firefighters to friends and family and even clients themselves can make referrals.

No one is turned away, and the angels don’t give up offering support to an individual – the support workers could attend one individual dozens of times.

“One of our first referrals has tried many different things to deal with one individual’s struggles and it hasn’t panned out, but has never given up, goes back and tries again,” Ashley says. “It focuses around human connection, ultimately.”

For the angels, that’s ultimately the end goal for each client: making each individual feel seen and their experiences acknowledged, to offer human interactions unencumbered by an “intervention” or an imposition of certain views on the client.

“We get a referral from our first responder, we action it, but we don’t action it in saying, ‘Guess what … we’re here to have an intervention, and we’re taking you to detox,’ ” MacDonald says.

“We’re just going, ‘How can we help you?’ ”

That help can include connecting them with services, buying them coffee or even buying them a new coat if their current one is looking worse for wear.

It follows a growing theory among social and health care workers and which is catching to some degree in law enforcement as well.

“Dead people don’t go to detox” is a common catch phrase among the harm-reduction crowd, but it’s not just about keeping people alive.

Much like how “housing first” posits that a roof over one’s head can offer them stability to get a job, counselling or photo ID, the angels offer unconditional support in an effort to help the person overcome whatever barriers they face.

Ashley says Project Angel is a step in the right direction, and advocates that more programs take on a similar peer-based model to the APD’s angels.

“It’s very challenging to relate to or support somebody in order to meet their very unique needs, and be able to understand them if you’ve never really been exposed to that sort of thing,” she says.

The successes of Project Angel are already being heard in the city and beyond – just a few months in, the project secured a second year of funding, and they’ve heard from police in B.C. and Alberta curious about the program.

And the program is catching on among the police force with really encouraging results, MacDonald says, but he says he still hasn’t seen a paradigm shift in the community.

“I think we do have a lot of recognition among the first-responder group, amongst corrections, bylaws and obviously the clients in the community,” he says. “The average citizen, I don’t know that they know the story.”

Find more of our coverage on the overdose crisis here.

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Dustin Godfrey | Reporter
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