Research behind a forthcoming CBC Television documentary includes new data on Vancouver police encounters with people experiencing a mental-health crisis. It suggests despite progressive training, many incidents still end with an officer deploying lethal force.
For the period 2004 to 2014, investigative journalists Helen Slinger and Yvette Brend analyzed hundreds of coroners’ reports from jurisdictions across Canada.
In British Columbia, they found evidence police or RCMP officers shot 28 people who were experiencing a mental-health crisis, Slinger revealed in a telephone interview. That was out of 72 such incidents for the country as a whole.
The filmmaker added that according to a “very conservative estimate”, nearly 40 percent of all fatal police shootings in Canada involved either a person with a mental illness or an individual experiencing a mental-health crisis.
Slinger noted distinct themes emerged in those coroners’ reports.
The first was that when a police officer did fire a weapon, that usually happened almost immediately after they encountered a person in distress. The second was that training could be clearly traced to make a notable difference in outcomes.
“It comes down to what happens before police arrive at the scene,” she said. “If you are trained to approach with a command and control attitude, that could very likely backfire with someone in mental distress.”
The documentary is called Hold Your Fire. It was produced by Bountiful Films and is scheduled to debut on CBC Television as part of the network’s Firsthand program on Thursday, October 22.
The hour-long film looks at a number of police-involved deaths across the country. Those include the case of Sammy Yatim, who was shot by Toronto police in 2013, and Paul Boyd, a Vancouver animator who police shot and killed in 2007.
With video footage of those deaths plus interviews with family members, Hold Your Fire makes the case that neither young man needed to die.
“The police were the cause of the violence that night,” Boyd’s father says in the film.
Slinger’s findings mirror those of the Georgia Straight’s own analysis for British Columbia.
In February 2015, the Straight published a review of more than 120 coroners’ reports that dated from 2007 to 2014.
During that period, it was found there were 99 incidents where someone died in the custody of the RCMP or police.
Of those cases, the Straight determined 17 deaths involved a mental-health issue, 59 involved substance abuse, and at least 13 involved both drugs and a mental-health component. (The Straight’s analysis differed from Slinger’s in a number of ways. For example, in addition to looking at cases involving a mental illness, it also included situations where a person struggled with a serious addiction issue.)
Again echoing Slinger’s findings, the Straight’s investigation revealed that the first few minutes or even seconds of an encounter often meant the difference between life and death.
It’s those brief windows that Slinger focuses on in her documentary.
“We started out looking for that moment, asking, 'how do you pull back?'” she said. “And what I felt was really obvious is it is how the particular unit goes to that call that makes all the difference.”
Slinger said if there is one message she hopes people take from her documentary, it is that police officers need to slow down when responding to an individual experiencing a mental-health crisis.
Hold Your Fire presents tangible lessons for how that can be accomplished without significantly adding to the risks that police officers face on the job.
While Slinger described the Vancouver Police Department as a force where there is “still lots of room for improvement”, she also said it stands “among the most progressive police forces in the country in terms of their programs for people with mental illness”.
She suggested what’s at play within the VPD and other departments across Canada is a sort of competition between old and new schools of police training.
For example, the documentary explains that in North America, many departments train officers to respond with lethal force if a person perceived to be a threat moves within 20 feet of an officer. That lesson, which can be engrained to a point where it can play out almost as a muscle reflex, can come into conflict with training for how one can de-escalate a potentially violent situation without using lethal force.
“Vancouver has kept moving in that direction with a number of programs that are very progressive,” she said. “I think it just hasn’t made its way through the entire force yet. But I do think things are changing.”
In 2014, Vancouver police recorded an all-time high for apprehensions it made under the Mental Health Act, a law that permits officers to detain individuals deemed to have a mental disorder and to pose a threat to themselves or others. Officers apprehended 3,010 people under the act, a number that has increased each year, up from 2,278 in 2009.