Vancouver police staff sergeant Mark Horsley wanted to make at least one bust. Very much. It would have made his year, taking down one of the creeps responsible for assaulting and robbing disabled Vancouverites.
People in wheelchairs, getting smacked around, mugged. It’s hard to imagine any crime more despicable or cowardly.
There have been 28 violent offences on wheelchair-using folk in the city since January 2014, according to the Vancouver Police Department. Two-thirds of those crimes occurred in the drug-infested Downtown Eastside (DTES). One of the victims was sexually assaulted; six others required medical attention.
Working with other VPD members, peer support workers and rehabilitation specialists, Horsley hatched a cunning scheme. He borrowed a $16,000 electric-powered wheelchair, grew some facial hair and wheeled into the DTES, undercover.
The objective: pretend to be disabled and brain-injured from a motorcycle accident that never really happened. Play the “easy mark.” Bait criminals by flashing cash and valuables, such as cellphones and cameras. When they pounce, collar them. Make them pay.
Vancouver PoliceStills from the surveillance video as Vancouver Police Staff Sergeant Mark Horsley went undercover on the Downtown Eastside as a disabled person.
“My boss tied a pork chop around my neck and threw me into a shark tank,” Horsley recalled Thursday at VPD headquarters.
The operation didn’t go quite as planned.
“We wanted a serious assault or a robbery,” he said. “That’s all we were after.” Instead, people approached with offers of sympathy and hope. Encouragement. Friendly cautions. They made unsolicited donations: food, other stuff, and $24 in spare change.
In five days of undercover work from his wheelchair, with loot hanging from a fanny pack for all to see and perhaps snatch, and after more than 300 “contacts” with people, Horsley made not a single arrest. People wanted to give him things, instead.
Passers-by insisted on dropping coins into his lap. “I did not panhandle,” he said. Two men bought him pizza. Others just stopped and chatted, passed the time, exchanged pleasantries. All anyone took was his photograph.
Once, a guy came along and crouched over Horsley. He reached in, as if making for the fanny pack. Horsley tensed. Here it was, at last: Heinous crime in progress, bust coming up. The man’s fingers touched the fanny pack. Then the prospective perp zippered it shut. He asked Horsley to please be more careful with his things, for goodness sake.
Several more times, Horsley was approached and told to take care. By known criminals, even. This demonstrated there really is “honour” among certain thieves, he said. Robbing the disabled is “below their ethical standards,” he concluded. “The community will not stand for this.”
It’s all very heartening. But Horsley admitted some disappointment. Lots of planning went into the undercover operation, which rolled out in May and lasted into June. Before deployment, police analysts studied the Downtown Eastside and determined five specific locations — “high value target areas” — where he ought to troll. Horsley surveilled the neighbourhood himself, and watched how local wheelchair-assisted folk conducted themselves.
He spent hours in the borrowed wheelchair, practising his moves inside VPD headquarters. He grew a beard. He altered his speech somewhat.
He did not assign to the scheme a sexy cover name, alas. “I’m not good with that sort of thing,” Horsley confessed. What should have been dubbed “Operation Rolling Thunder” or at least “Project Snatch Fanny Pack” was discussed inside VPD HQ as “the undercover wheelchair program.”
Let’s be honest: the moniker sucked and the sting flopped.
The VPD deny it, of course. “I wouldn’t describe it as a failed operation,” Insp. Howard Chow said Thursday. Word will spread, he noted, and henceforth, a thief might think twice the next time he sees a vulnerable-looking person in a wheelchair. Because that person might be a cop.