Sister of man killed by police asks Ministry of Justice to track officer-involved shootings

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      An Ontario woman has written to Canada’s minister of justice and attorney general with a heartfelt request for the government to pay more attention to shootings involving police.

      On December 2, 2013, Joanne MacIsaac’s brother, Michael, was shot by Durham Regional Police while experiencing a mental-health crisis. He died in hospital the following day.

      “Since that time, through our staggering trauma and despair, we have been troubled to discover that there is no national database of police killings or use of excessive force incidents in Canada,” MacIsaac writes in her letter to Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. “In fact, there is no accurate tally of police shootings across our country, not even the deadly ones.”

      MacIsaac says she wants the government to collect data on police shootings so that it can identify department shortcomings and improve tactics and training.

      “How common are such incidents of police use of force, lethal and non-lethal in Canada?” she asks. “Are the numbers increasing?  Has there been progress in our approach to policing in Canada?  The undisputed reality is that we do not know.”

      If the letter catches the attention of the justice minister, a Liberal MP for Vancouver Granville, MacIsaac’s call for a database tracking police shootings could reveal patterns from such incidents that have occurred in B.C.

      On Thursday (January 21), CBC is scheduled to air a documentary that presents evidence 28 British Columbians are among 72 people across Canada who were killed by police in circumstances similar to those of Michael MacIsaac, where mental health was a factor.

      The film, Hold Your Fire, explores the circumstances around MacIsaac’s death. It also examines the case of Paul Boyd, a Vancouver animator who was shot and killed in 2007, and Sammy Yatim, who was shot by Toronto police in 2013.

      The Straight spoke with the documentary’s director, Helen Slinger, last October. She said she and fellow investigative reporter Yvette Brend found that the first few minutes or even seconds of an encounter with police often means the difference between life and death.

      “We started out looking for that moment, asking, 'how do you pull back?' ” Slinger 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’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.)

      Hold Your Fire is scheduled to debut on CBC Television on Thursday, January 21.

      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 airs tomorrow night, January 21, on CBC Television’s Firsthand program.

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