I had the pleasure of meeting Sergeant Robin Klassen of the Lethbridge Police Service at my very first Heart of the City Committee meeting. She has been working hard with her colleagues to come up with solutions to our ongoing social issues that face our city. The new Supervised Consumption Site has been a contentious issue and she is striving to inform the public on its benefits. I thought I’d ask her about that and get to know a little bit more about her background.
Tell us a little about yourself and your journey to becoming Sergeant of the Downtown Policing Unit.
I grew up in a rural farming community outside of Lethbridge. I received my Social Work Degree from the University of Calgary through the Lethbridge satellite campus and began my Social Work career in Children Services. While I was with Children Services, I had the opportunity to work alongside the Lethbridge Police Service as well as the RCMP and I always had a strong interest in their world. My brother is a member of the RCMP which also gave me the chance to see and understand more of what policing life was about. I applied for the Lethbridge Police Service and was hired in 2001 spending my first five years in the patrol division. I then moved into the Forensic Identification Unit for a number of years before returning to patrols. From there I joined the Domestic Violence Unit and was promoted which brought me back to the patrol division as a team Sergeant. In January of 2017 I became the Sergeant of the Downtown Policing Unit and I am currently in that role working with the community and specifically the Downtown core of the city.
How do you like Lethbridge?
I enjoy Lethbridge for its size, closeness to my family and also proximity to the mountains. I love spending time outdoors with my son and husband using our summer holidays for paddle boarding and camping with friends and family.
Who were some of your role models?
When asked about my role models, I would have to say my brother fits in that category. Although he is my older brother and I wouldn’t admit this to him, I would have to say that he is someone I looked up to while growing up and still hold a great respect for. Before he became an active member I watched him go through the application process, complete his training in Regina and eventually reach his goal of joining the RCMP. My family attended his graduation and the pride that I felt definitely influenced my decision to apply for the Police Service. I admire the dedication he has to his career, his community and his family. Seventeen years ago at my graduation, he presented me with my Lethbridge Police Service Badge, definitely a proud moment for all of us.
You have been informing the public about the new Supervised Consumption Site. What are some of the major misconceptions?
Here is an information sheet from ARCHES that addresses some of those concerns:
Myths & Facts About Supervised Consumption Services:
Myth: Offering Supervised Consumption Services will encourage people to experiment with and use other drugs.
Fact: The people who use Supervised Consumption Services are already dealing with addictions. They are often homeless people who use drugs in public places because they do not have the option of a safe environment.
The first time a person accesses Supervised Consumption Services, they meet with a nurse to discuss their drug use and their circumstances. The key to providing the services is to build relationships with people and connect them with appropriate supports to be healthier and to stay alive.
Myth: Supervised Consumption Services are “shooting galleries” where people with addictions can congregate to use drugs.
Fact: The space for Supervised Consumption Services is a safe, clean environment with stations equipped for individual substance use under observation by a nurse. The nurse can educate the individual on safer consumption practices and provide primary care as needed. After consumption people have a safe space to rest and talk with a nurse, social worker or peer support worker to discuss the resources they are accessing as well as additional supports they need such as health care, social services and addiction counselling.
Myth: Adding medically Supervised Consumption Services presents problems that don’t currently exist in the community.
Fact: In Alberta 559 people died as a result of opioid overdoses in 2016. Of these deaths, 363 were attributed to fentanyl or carfentanil, which are often laced into other drugs.
Everyone in the community benefits from adding services that encourage people already engaged in high-risk activity to come into a controlled facility where they can reduce harm to themselves and access support services.
In the ARCHES 2017 Outreach and Harm Reduction Evaluation, 75 per cent of drug users reported that they had injected in public during the previous six months. Without a safer alternative, people are injecting drugs in public places such as under the Highway 3 overpass along Stafford Drive, in the bushes by the homeless shelter, in back alleys, behind dumpsters and in public washrooms. Discarded needles are just one of the consequences of this public drug use.
Myth: Instead of spending taxpayers’ money on Supervised Consumption Services, we should put all our resources into prevention, treatment and enforcement.
Fact: The most effective approach is multi-faceted and includes education, prevention, harm reduction, treatment and enforcement. No single approach on its own will solve the whole problem. The reality for people who use drugs is that their health and survival are at risk. The goal of Supervised Consumption Services is to provide people with a safe place while also helping them start to break their addictions.
The lifetime cost is high to treat infectious diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C, which are contracted from sharing used needles, and to treat infections from unsafe needle practices. For every dollar spent on Supervised Consumption Services, five dollars are saved in health care and emergency services costs.
How real is the Opioid Crisis in Lethbridge?
The entire province is facing a substance abuse-related health crisis. To put things into perspective, more Albertans are dying each year from drug overdoses than at the height of the AIDS/HIV epidemic. In 2016, 559 Albertans died from drug overdoses – 363 were attributed to either fentanyl or carfentanil and 196 were attributed to other opioids. The south zone (which includes Lethbridge) also saw the highest rate of emergency department visits – 24 per cent higher than the provincial average.
From a policing perspective what’s the biggest challenge you’re going to face with the site opens?
At this point it’s really too early to say.
What has been the response when you inform people about what is coming?
Right now reactions are mixed. Some people are extremely supportive, some are not and there’s a lot of people somewhere in the middle who just aren’t sure. But what I’ve found is people who maybe don’t have a lot of information about it or don’t necessarily understand what it’s intended to do and what it isn’t intended to do, generally lean more to the supportive side once they learn more about it.
Is there anything unique to Lethbridge that might be different from other parts of the world?
Yes. From what I have learned from ARCHES, the Lethbridge site will be the first in North America to offer all four modes of consumption – ingestion/oral, injection, intra-nasal/snorting and inhalation. ARCHES is the expert when it comes to the site and questions around it specifically.
How safe is Lethbridge right now?
Overall, Lethbridge is a safe community and the majority of people feel safe. Every year we do a community survey – which we’re actually in the process of doing right now for 2018 – and one of the questions we ask is how safe people feel. In the 2017 survey the majority of respondents reported that they felt safe in their neighbourhood. I think what’s important for people to understand is the risk of being the victim of a serious crime is very low for the average, law-abiding citizen. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but it’s far less likely compared to someone engaged in a high risk lifestyle which includes people involved in the drug subculture, substance abusers, the homeless and other marginalized individuals. The majority of violent crime in the city is targeted, in that the parties involved are known to one another and much of it is associated to the drug trade. Where the average person might be impacted, is property crime, which is a spin off effect of substance abuse – addicts stealing to feed their habit. It’s also largely opportunistic and people can greatly reduce their risk of victimization through prevention. For example, if you leave your purse or wallet in your car, you increase your risk of being victimized. Remove valuables so there’s nothing to steal and you reduce it.
How optimistic are you about minimizing drug use and homelessness in our city?
Both are social problems and not something the police alone can address. A holistic approach involving social services, health, mental health and other community support services, that address root causes and provide treatment options to help get people back on track is the only way to change the situation. Arrest and temporary detention won’t break the cycle.
And just for fun, what are your 5 favorite albums of all time?
I am a country girl to the core – doesn’t matter the decade or if it’s hit the charts….you will find me listening to it all.