Increasingly, people in B.C. are dying during interactions with police and in the custody of a law-enforcement agency.
The Georgia Straight maintains a public database of police-involved deaths in B.C. based on information supplied by the B.C. Coroners Service and the Independent Investigations Office of B.C.
A comprehensive update of this database revealed that 2016 saw the number of police-involved fatalities increase for the third year in a row.
From 2009 to 2013, deaths remained stable, at 13 or 14 each year.
Then, in 2014, there were 16. Then 17 in 2015 and 18 in 2016.
Eighteen deaths in 2016 is the highest number recorded for a single year in the database, which goes back to 2003.
The second-highest number on record was in 2007, when there were 17 deaths.
“It appears we’ve now crept up to exceed the highest point in the last almost two decades for which we have this information,” B.C. Civil Liberties Association executive director Josh Paterson said in an telephone interview. “And that’s a matter of concern.”
He noted the statistics compiled by the Straight do not tell the whole story. They omit, for example, how many interactions police had with the public overall and whether there was an increase in interactions for the same years when there were more fatalities.
“But, obviously, all of these deaths are a tragedy,” Paterson added. “Having more of them is always worse, unquestionably.”
The increase has been driven by the RCMP, which polices 150 municipalities across the province. Most of those are small towns, but the RCMP is also responsible for larger cities, including Burnaby, Richmond, and Surrey.
In 2012, four people died during interactions with RCMP officers. Then seven in 2013, six in 2014, 12 in 2015, then 12 again in 2016.
The number of fatal police shootings in B.C. has fluctuated but remained relatively low. Since 2006, there have been an average of 3.8 fatal shootings by police each year.
Total numbers for the database include deaths in B.C. prisons (omitting natural causes). Deaths in prisons constitute a minority of the reports reviewed.
The Ministry of Public Safety and the RCMP did not make representatives available for interviews.
Paterson said he’d like to see B.C.’s new NDP government monitor deaths involving police more closely than it does today. He pointed to Ontario, where, he said, the provincial government has taken an interest in issues of race and racial biases involving police.
Paterson also mentioned police interactions involving people with a mental illness as an area of special concern.
A previous analysis of the Straight’s database found that of 99 police-involved deaths investigated or scheduled for investigation between 2007 and 2014, 90 percent involved a mental-health component, substance abuse, or both.
“Despite some progress that’s been made in terms of new policies—in the city of Vancouver, for example—on police dealings with people with mental-health issues, I think there is still a very long way to go, both for the RCMP and for municipal forces,” Paterson said.