Deaths involving police reveal a long pattern of mental illness and addiction

The Georgia Straight studied more than 120 coroner's reports and found that 90 percent of police-related deaths involved mental illness, drugs, or alcohol.

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      One evening last November, Kieran Fogarty was waiting for a bus at the corner of Knight Street and East 41st Avenue, texting a friend to pass the time.

      “There is an amusing old guy yelling in Chinese hitting a fence with a 2x4 tho so it’s not been too dull,” he wrote.

      “Okay guck[sic] man shit just got fucked,” reads the next message. Then a third: “Cops showed up and shot the guy.”

      Fogarty’s iPhone marked the first message as sent at 4:51 p.m. The third is stamped 4:52 p.m.

      At a coffee shop across the street from that bus stop, Fogarty recounted watching two Vancouver Police Department officers respond to Phuong Na (Tony) Du, a 51-year-old Vietnamese man friends later described as struggling with a mental-health issue.

      “It was four shots, right away,” Fogarty said. “Bang-bang, bang-bang.” He later learned two of those blasts were nonlethal beanbags. “But there was no pause in between,” Fogarty added.

      A November 22 VPD media release implies a slightly different version of events. “Eventually the man was shot,” it reads. “He was rushed to hospital, but did not survive.”

      Earlier in the month, on November 1, Victoria police shot and killed 21-year-old Rhett Patrick Victor Mutch. According to the Times Colonist, he had broken into his mother’s house and was threatening to hurt himself. And on December 28, Naverone Woods was killed by Transit Police at a Safeway in Surrey. The 23-year-old First Nations man was reportedly distraught and inflicting self-harm.

      Mutch, Du, and Woods are among the latest B.C. residents to die during an incident involving police. It is no coincidence that all three episodes included a mental-health component. An individual is significantly more likely to die during an encounter with police if they have an issue related to a mental illness or addiction, an investigation by the Straight has revealed.

      Having analyzed 123 B.C. Coroners Service reports dating back to 2007, plus another 10 cases tentatively scheduled for investigation, the Straight can report the following: during this period, there were 99 deaths where police or RCMP were present; officers shot a person in 33 of those cases. Seventeen deaths in police custody involved a mental-health issue, 59 involved substance abuse, and at least 13 involved both drugs and a mental-health component.

      That is, 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.

      A review of more than 120 B.C. Coroners Service reports revealed 99 deaths in police custody, a majority of which involved a mental illness and/or addiciton. A link to the Straight's analysis of these reports appears in the paragraph above.
      Travis Lupick

      This analysis has notable deficiencies. For example, the diagnosis of a mental illness can be subjective. Furthermore, criteria for what qualifies as a mental-health component have changed over time. Coroner’s reports from earlier years lack information on deceased individuals’ mental state, suggesting the number of deaths involving a mental-health component is higher than indicated. And information for recent years is incomplete as this analysis is based on coroner’s reports and it can take two years or more for a coroner’s investigation to occur.

      Nevertheless, the data underscores a point repeatedly made by service providers: that people who struggle with a mental illness or addiction are significantly more likely to incur harm than they are to hurt someone else.

      Nobody the Straight presented with this data said it surprised them, a fact that Josh Paterson argued only makes the issue more alarming.

      “It is a bad thing in the sense that people have been talking about this issue for years and yet we continue to see the problem happening,” the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said. “If police had better ways of dealing with individuals with mental-health issues, we think that many of these deaths could have been avoided.”

      Doug King, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, said police must improve on how they respond to such calls.

      “They still have not figured out a way to interact with and de-escalate situations involving a person who is mentally ill,” he said. “An indication that can’t be ignored is that a lot of these shootings seem to happen really quickly.”

      Sandy Jaremchuk is manager of services to affected persons at the Independent Investigations Office of B.C., a public body created in 2012 to examine police incidents involving death or serious harm. She told the Straight that similar patterns around mental health and addiction appear in her office’s work.

      “Most of our affected people come from a disadvantaged background of some sort,” Jaremchuk said, “whether it is being homeless, involved chronically with the criminal-justice system, or having some kind of mental-health or substance misuse.”

      Another pattern Paterson noticed in Coroners Service annual reports: police agencies aren’t adopting jury recommendations. He noted that in 2010 (the last year for which such statistics are available), only 40 percent of suggestions were implemented.

      “There has been coroner’s report after report talking about the need for more training, for de-escalation, and to deal with these kinds of situations,” he said. “There is something that is not working right, and I think that these stats…confirm what we’ve all been thinking all along.”

      The Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Health, and B.C. RCMP refused repeated requests for interviews.

      The VPD has stated publicly it is responding to more calls involving people experiencing a mental-health crisis. In 2014, the department made 3,025 apprehensions under Section 28 of the Mental Health Act. That’s up 33 percent from 2,278 arrests in 2010.

      Announcing his retirement from the force on January 23, 2015, VPD chief constable Jim Chu (right) said the one thing he worried he was leaving unfinished was his work on mental health.
      Vancouver Police Department

      Acting Insp. Howard Tran, head of the Vancouver police mental-health unit, spoke frankly on the matter.

      “Does it surprise me? No,” he said in a telephone interview. “There are a lot of different factors involved in creating that storm where the police do end up using lethal force on someone. And oftentimes it involves either drugs, mental illness, or suicidal ideation or this whole notion of suicide by police. And so it doesn’t surprise me.”

      Tran ran through a list of initiatives implemented in recent years. As of 2012, every police and RCMP officer in B.C. must undergo crisis intervention and de-escalation training. The VPD has a specific unit designed for mental-health calls that it has expanded to consist of seven full-time officers who coordinate with health-care providers. There’s also an older five-member unit called Car 87 that’s tasked with mental-health and substance-use cases, and additional officers are assigned to deal with at-risk youth.

      For all those programs, Tran continued, the VPD makes a conscious effort to recruit officers who have an “inclination or an interest” in work with people who have mental-illness or addiction issues. “Empathy is, obviously, a good trait to have when dealing with this population,” he said.

      In a separate interview, Const. Brian Montague, a spokesperson for the force, offered context for encounters where a person with a mental illness died in the custody of police. He noted that between 20 and 30 percent of all VPD "reportable" calls involve a mental-health component. For 2014, that translates to between 27,000 and 36,500 interactions per year.

      In July 2014, former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci released the results of an exhaustive investigation into police-involved deaths in Toronto that he conducted after the July 2013 police shooting of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim. In a telephone interview, Iacobucci said his review revealed the same pattern present in B.C. coroner’s reports.

      “There is no doubt there is a preponderance of people who have some form of mental or emotional challenge,” he told the Straight.

      Iacobucci argued that it is a stigma that officers’ training must address.

      “Remember that this isn’t a situation that comes about in cool and calm circumstances,” he said. “Fear is everywhere. Fear on the part of the subject, fear on the part of spectators, fear on the part of the police.”

      Chasing a crisis
      This article is the sixth in a six-part series.
      Part one: Vancouver police still seeking help to prevent a mental-health crisis
      Part two: Amid a mental-health crisis, Vancouver care providers revisit the debate on institutionalization
      Part three: Vancouver service providers fail to get ahead of a mental-health crisis
      Part four: B.C. prisons lock mentally-ill offenders in isolation
      Part five: Vancouver's ill and addicted lost in a mental-health care maze
      Part six: Deaths involving police reveal a long pattern of mental illness and addiction

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      In Other News

      Feb 12, 2015 at 8:17am

      Review of historical coroner's reports from medieval europe show that many clashes with the King and Lords were due to demonic possession! When are we going to lost this pseudoscientific concept of mental illness and start focusing on things that actually exist, like bodies, instead of flim flam, like minds?

      Stephen Blumstein

      Feb 12, 2015 at 2:17pm

      The claim that most of the VPD's interactions with people in Vancouver involve mental health issues is a non-sequitur. The DTES has more mental health and addiction resources than any other jurisdiction in British Columbia. Who makes these assertions about their mental health ? Is a psychiatrist always present when the police interact with more than 30,000 incidents ? According to the new DSM5R, 1/3 of the Canadian population has mental health problems, since the DSM casts a very wide net to include alcoholism, cigarette smoking, addiction to street and prescription drugs, PTSD from domestic abuse, and at least 300 other mental health diagnoses. There is counteracting research in criminology which suggests that those with a mental health issues are no less likely to become violent than the general Canadian population (