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Grow Watch called a ‘spy network’ by civil liberties group

By Hempology | October 17, 2005

Block Watch has no business busting illegal marijuana grow operations under the recently-announced Grow Watch program, says a Block Watch volunteer in Chilliwack.

By Robert Freeman
The Chilliwack Progress (BC)

“We’re taking away a responsibility of the RCMP and handing it over to community members,” says Rose Smith, and that move “could put citizens in harm’s way” if criminal elements in a neighbourhood believe the volunteers are acting as “spies” for the police.

“It’s a spy network,” agrees B.C. Civil Liberties policy director Micheal Vonn. “(Chilliwack officials) are trying to set up what looks like a surveillance society, which works best when citizens spy on each other.”

She says there is a “qualitative” difference between citizens reporting suspicious activity to police and “setting up a systemic spy system” in a community.

The Grow Watch training manual advises members to look for, among other things, property owners with “unkempt” lawns” and “very little furniture,” she says.

“There’s no way you could read that and not find it troubling, if you have concern for civil liberties,” she says.

“This kind of community policing would have found a home in Soviet Russia, (and) I’m not indulging in hyperbole,” Vonn adds. “However we want to couch this, it is requiring you to spy on your neighbours, if you want to participate in this program.”

But Chilliwack Councillor Sharon Gaetz, chair of the city’s public safety advisory council, says the qualitative difference from the city’s point of view is that nobody is forced to join Grow Watch.

And she charged the civil liberties critics of the program with making an issue out of a genuine public concern for neighbourhood safety.

“It’s not a program that’s imposed on anybody,” she says. “I don’t think the intention is for anyone to spy on their neighbours, the intention is to keep grow-ops out of their neighbourhoods.”

She says the volunteers are trained not to “personally intervene” in suspected marijuana grow operations, but to call the police “just like any other law-abiding citizen would.”

“I think they just want their neighbourhoods to be safe,” she added. “If some people want to call that spying … I think they’re making an issue out of it.”

Smith says she was recently confronted by some neighbours while walking her dog near her downtown Chilliwack home.

“They wanted to make sure I wasn’t one of the spies involved (in Grow Watch),” she says about the encounter. While she didn’t feel personally threatened, she thought the question was “fair enough … because people don’t want to be spied on.”

Smith says Grow Watch volunteers are “basically doing the work of an undercover officer” and she questions whether Block Watch can legally operate the program.

“(Block Watch) wasn’t set up to do watching and reporting and recording” of possible marijuana grow operations for the RCMP, she says.

But Gerrie Wise, president of the provincial Block Watch program, says each chapter of the organization has the “flexibility” to decide whether to form partnerships with police “to fit the requirements of the community.”

“We teach neighbours to go home and teach their neighbours how to better secure their property,” she says. “Getting rid of grow-ops has been part of their Block Watch job.”

Chilliwack RCMP and Block Watch officials jointly unveiled the Grow Watch program here in June geared to educating the public about how to identify a grow-op, assisting citizens in reporting suspicious activity, and deterring criminals with special Grow Watch signs.

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