Timeline of transit police shooting fits troubling pattern of fatal encounters with B.C. police

An independent body has cleared two transit police officers of any wrongdoing in the death of Naverone Woods, but watchdogs argue that only means B.C.'s problem of police shootings is larger than one incident

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      Today (May 16) new details were released about the death of Naverone Woods, a 23-year-old First Nations man who was shot and killed by transit police in December 2014.

      A report by the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. (IIOBC)—which cleared the officers involved of any wrongdoing—includes a time line for the shooting. It notes that one of the first officers on the scene at a Safeway in Surrey fired the shots that killed Woods within 60 seconds of their arrival.

      At 8:03 a.m., Woods entered the Safeway, according to the report. At 8:07 a.m., 911 received a call wherein Woods was reported to be stabbing himself with a knife.

      Two minutes later, at 8:09 a.m., two transit police officers arrived and entered the Safeway. That same minute, two shots were fired and Woods was on the ground.

      He was pronounced dead at Royal Columbia Hospital at 9:27 a.m.

      Helen Slinger is a Vancouver-based documentarian whose recent film Hold Your Fire focused on police shootings involving a person experiencing a mental-health crisis. She told the Straight that the time line of the Woods shooting resembles many cases she reviewed for her film.

      “It is very much a pattern,” Slinger said in a telephone interview. “Police are going in too fast, too hard.”

      In researching Hold Your Fire, Slinger and fellow journalist  Yvette Brend read hundreds of coroner reports from across Canada. In B.C. alone, they found that between the years 2004 and 2014, 28 people were shot and killed by police or RCMP while experiencing a mental-health crisis.

      “After two years of research it took to do that documentary, it was the one thing that finally, really jumped out at me,” she said. “That in so many of these high-profile police shootings of persons in mental distress...police just do not take the time to back up.”

      High-profile cases

      Stringer listed off a number of fatal police shootings that she described as similar to the Woods case in that officers fired their weapons within less than three minutes of their first encounter with their suspect.

      In November 2014, Vancouver police officers shot and killed Phuong Na (Tony) Du less than two minutes after they arrived to apprehend him at the intersection of Knight Street and East 41st Avenue.

      In July 2013, Toronto police shot and killed 18-year-old Sammy Yatim within one minute of the first officer arriving on the scene.

      In August 2007, a Vancouver animator named Paul Boyd was shot by police on Granville Street. Less than three minutes had passed since the first officer had intervened.

      In 2004, Christopher Reid was shot by Toronto police, also within three minutes of their arrival.

      Slinger also mentioned Robert Dziekański, who, although not shot with a gun, died after RCMP repeatedly tasered him almost immediately after meeting Dziekański at Vancouver International Airport in October 2007.

      The pattern Slinger says she’s noticed in coroner reports from across Canada mirrors findings of the Straight’s own analysis for British Columbia.

      In February 2015, the Straight published a review of more than 120 coroner reports that dated from 2007 to 2014. During that period, there were 99 incidents where someone died during an interaction with police.

      An update the Straight published in December 2015 looked specifically at deaths involving firearms. It revealed an increase in those incidents. And, 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.

      Difficult circumstances

      The IIOBC’s report on Woods describes difficult circumstances for the first transit police officers who arrive at the Surrey Safeway that morning.

      Multiple eyewitnesses are quoted there describing the young man as holding two knives, failing to respond when people tried to intervene, and repeatedly inflicting harm on himself.

      Those anecdotes support one another in stating that police repeatedly shouted warnings before any shots were fired. “Drop the knife,”, “Get down,” and “We’ll shoot,” people heard the officers say.

      The witnesses are also in agreement that Woods “lunged” or was “moving towards” the officers when they met him just inside the store’s entrance.

      A Safeway security guard told IIOBC investigators he estimated the length of time officers had their guns drawn before firing was between 10 and 12 seconds.

      Transit police spokesperson Anne Drennan told the Straight she couldn’t comment on specifics pending the completion of investigations by the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner and the B.C. Coroners Service.

      But Drennan emphasized that transit police officers receive the same basic training as every police and RCMP officer in B.C. She emphasized that this includes instructions on mental health and the appropriate use of force.

      “Since January 2012, the province of B.C. sets binding standards to ensure that B.C. police officers are trained to use crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques,” she said.

      The province requires that officers receive a refresher on those topics every three years. The IIOBC report confirms that both officers involved received that training in July 2014.

      A larger problem

      Doug King is a Pivot Legal Society lawyer who keeps a close eye on police-involved deaths. He told the Straight the fact that the IIOBC cleared the officers of any wrongdoing is actually indicative of a larger problem.

      “We know that this is the legal standard, currently,” King explained. “That if you’ve got someone who’s presenting with an edged weapon and they are physically advancing on an officer, the legal test is, basically, that at that point lethal force is justified.”

      King asked why the officers were not equipped with alternative weapons that could have been used without killing Woods. He noted the IIOBC’s report concludes with the same question.

      Like Slinger, King told the Straight that details in the IIOBC’s report fit a pattern.

      “I would say it’s almost déjà vu,” he said. “We see these cases where the officers are not able to contain the individual until the appropriate resources arrive.”

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