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Community anger after another Downtown Eastside pedestrian hit by Vancouver police vehicle

The family of a man hit by a speeding Vancouver police vehicle in the Downtown Eastside says the guilty officer's punishment — a $2,000 fine — is "nothing" compared to how severely the 2022 collision altered Dennis Hunter's life.

Calls for police accountability after speeding officer fined $2K for 2022 collision

A family sits on a couch smiling.

The family of a man hit by a speeding Vancouver police vehicle in the Downtown Eastside says the guilty officer's punishment — a $2,000 fine — is "nothing" compared to how severely the 2022 collision altered Dennis Hunter's life.

And following another instance of a pedestrian being struck by a Vancouver Police Department (VPD) vehicle on a nearby stretch of East Hastings Street earlier this week, Hunter's ex-wife and community advocates say they're "outraged" by what they claim is a lack of police accountability and protection for pedestrians in the neighbourhood.

Hunter was struck by a police car driven by Const. Jack Zhao while he was standing on East Hastings near Main Street in the early morning of Sept. 20, 2022, according to court documents.

Rhonda Simpkins, the mother of Hunter's two children, says the collision left Hunter with limited mobility after his leg was broken in several places and he suffered an abscess. He still sees double due to several face and eye injuries from the collision, she said.

WATCH | Video shows moments before Dennis Hunter was struck:

Video shows police vehicle moments before it hits pedestrian

2 years ago

Duration 0:17

An investigation is underway after a Vancouver police cruiser struck a pedestrian on East Hastings Street on the morning of Sept. 20, 2022.

But she said the most devastating impact has been the mental and emotional toll for the 53-year-old, who is homeless and now struggling with anxiety and paranoia and has trouble sleeping.

"When you get run down like that and then, just seeing no consequence … [the officer] got to go to work the next day while [Hunter] was struggling to survive," Simpkins told CBC News on Thursday.

"He feels like someone's out to get him and that there's not a lot of places where he feels safe or people he feels safe with or trusts."

On May 3, Zhao pleaded guilty to careless driving for speeding up to 55 km/h in a 30 km/h zone, receiving the maximum fine of $2,000, plus a $300 victim surcharge, according to court documents. Two other traffic violations, related to the injuries Hunter incurred, were stayed.

In court, Zhao said he accepted full responsibility for his actions and that the collision will "haunt" him for the rest of his life. VPD confirmed Wednesday he remains an active member.

"I just wanted to say that I'm truly sorry to Mr. Hunter, and I also want to apologize to the public for causing distrust of police due to my actions, especially the vulnerable residents of the Downtown Eastside," said the officer, whom court heard had been on the job for less than two months at the time.

The court was unable to contact Hunter to provide a victim impact statement, and CBC's efforts to contact him have been unsuccessful.

But Simpkins said the Crown's decision not to criminally charge Zhao and to stay the two motor vehicle charges related to Hunter's injuries indicates police are held to a lower standard than the law they are sworn to uphold.

"It's the feeling that how it would affect this police officer's life is more important and more valuable than Dennis — that because of his life situation, he doesn't have the same value," she said.

"But he has two children that love him, [and] he has people that value him and he has God-given value."

Calls for accountability, pedestrian protection

Simpkins says she felt sick when she heard the recent news that another VPD vehicle hit and injured a man three blocks east of where Hunter was struck, and she is joining Downtown Eastside advocates calling for harsher penalties for police and more protection for pedestrians.

"If there's a serious consequence, then you're not going to have police officers running down people in the streets," she said.

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is investigating the collision on East Hastings near Dunlevy Avenue just after midnight on Tuesday, which it says left a man with serious injuries.

It's "a sign that the police are not accountable to the Downtown Eastside," said Vince Tao, a community organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU).

He called for a reduced police presence in the neighbourhood.

"They have lost the trust of the people here," said Tao.

Dave Hamm, a member of VANDU's board of directors, said the city needs to further lower speed limits and enhance pedestrian infrastructure in the Downtown Eastside, an area with high rates of mental illness and substance use.

The Downtown Eastside has some of the most dangerous intersections in the province for pedestrians, with the worst being Main and East Hastings, according to data from ICBC.

The speed limit along that stretch of East Hastings was lowered to 30 km/h in 2011 in response to a community safety campaign. The city says it reduced the number of fatal collisions by 25 per cent and injuring collisions by 25 per cent within five years of the change.

But Hamm said, "it would be great if [police] actually enforce the speed limit. It's not enforced."

"Cordova and Powell streets are treated like freeways almost in the mornings, in the afternoons and when it comes to traffic rush hour."

Hamm said traffic lights should be altered to extend the time pedestrians have to cross an intersection, so elderly people or those with mobility issues can walk around safely.

CBC News contacted VPD on Wednesday about the latest collision and measures the force was taking in the Downtown Eastside, but a spokesperson did not respond to the latter part of the request.

The City of Vancouver said pedestrian and road safety is its "top transportation focus" and it has introduced several measures in the Downtown Eastside in the past 12 years, including installing a speed camera at Main and Hastings in 2020.

"We can only determine if the [Tuesday] accident could have been mitigated through engineering or other measures after reviewing the police report," a spokesperson told CBC News on Friday.

Simpkins says she continues to try to find stable housing and medical care for Hunter, but it has been harder and harder for her and their two teenaged children to reach him from their home in Saskatchewan.

She says the once strong, energetic man has wasted away physically and it feels there has been no accountability.

"It feels a little unreal to me," said Simpkins.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Moira Wyton

Reporter

Moira Wyton is a Vancouver-based journalist for CBC News. She previously worked at the Edmonton Journal and The Tyee, and her reporting has been nominated for awards from the Canadian Association of Journalists, Jack Webster Foundation and the Digital Publishing Awards. You can reach her at moira.wyton@cbc.ca.

    With files from Renee Lukacs and Isaac Phan Nay

    *****
    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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