Jeff Shantz: Small city, big police problem—killings by cops in Campbell River

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      By Jeff Shantz

      Campbell River is a small urban centre with a population of roughly 37,500 people. It is located in the traditional territories of the Ligwiłda'xw people and the Kwiakah, We Wai Kai, and Wei Wai Kum First Nations.

      According to tourist sites, it is known for a beautiful natural environment, nearby skiing, and small-town charms—it is proclaimed to be the “salmon capital of the world”.

      Over the past year, however, Campbell River had become known—infamous, in fact—for something else, something that does not appear in any of the tourist promotions. Since July of last year, Campbell River has been the site of at least three fatal police shootings.

      Police killings in Campbell River

      In the early morning of June 13, 2022, a terrible scene unfolded at Campbell River’s Discovery Harbour marina, leaving two people dead, one who was shot and killed by RCMP. The Independent Investigations Office (IIO) of B.C. said that RCMP responded to a reported homicide at the marina and that hostages were being held at the scene. Campbell River RCMP, crisis negotiators, and members of the Vancouver Island Emergency Response Team were deployed.

      Questions arise about RCMP actions that followed, because they themselves confirm that upon arrival, the people reported as hostages were safe and no longer at the scene. Despite this, the alleged hostage taker was shot and killed after a short interaction with police.

      No other details have been released publicly so it is impossible at this point to know what happened during that interaction. Were crisis negotiators involved? In what capacity?

      A shocking as this situation is, it is not the first time RCMP in Campbell River have killed someone this year. On April 2, a person died during an RCMP action, around which some mystery still remains.

      One witness residing near the Park Road scene reported hearing yelling, followed by a shot, more yelling, and then a second shot. Another witness reported seeing police interacting with a man “who appeared to be incoherent and out of it” and was face-down on the ground with his arms handcuffed behind him.

      The second witness also claimed seeing police pick the man up and put him into the back of a police vehicle. Then, a short time later, that witness saw an officer check the person and shout for assistance from the other officers. The witness says officers began performing CPR on the person.

      Perhaps the most notorious Campbell River police killing occurred less than a year ago, when RCMP shot and killed Jared Lowndes, a 38-year-old Wet’suwet’en man, on July 8, 2021, in the parking lot of a Tim Hortons. Over a warrant. 

      Family and friends have questioned why police deployed a police dog (which died during the event) and fired a deadly weapon so quickly in a warrant stop. Ashleaha Gardiner, a friend of Lowndes's, told reporters at the time that “Jared was stuck in that car already; they had no reason to bring that dog out at all. Jared didn’t have to get shot in the face three times, either”.

      Lowndes's killing was followed by a shameful outpouring of support—for the police dog. Media published several tributes to the police dog and physical memorials to the dog were put up in the city. There was even a memorial procession. The city created no memorials for the Indigenous man killed by police there.

      Families unite: justice for Jared and for all people killed by police

      Out of the horrors of the police killings, something special, if excruciatingly poignant, has arisen. Mothers of people killed by police have been organizing against the violence. Laura Holland, Jared Lowndes’s mother, has organized Justice for Jared to honour her son’s memory and raise demands to defund and disarm police and end the use of police dogs.

      Justice for Jared actions have been held multiple times in numerous cities, from Surrey to Vancouver, always on the eighth of each month, to remember and remind the public of the day that Jared was killed. An exhibit honouring people killed by police in Canada was organized at Vancouver’s Gallery Gachet earlier this year.

      This month, Martha Martin, the mother of Chantal Moore, a 26-year-old Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation woman shot and killed by police in New Brunswick, brought together mothers of people killed by Canadian police for a healing walk along the Pacific Rim Highway from Tofino to Ucluelet junction.

      While seeking justice, they realize that accountability is unlikely, at least in the way that they mean it and need it. Too often, families of people killed by police are left feeling excluded from police oversight bodies that are supposed to serve them. As Holland explains: “There is no place for us to share our disbelief, outrage, and unthinkable sorrow. We are left to plead with the public for funding as we scramble to do fundraisers and left to feel like beggars—to fight the state that is so well-organized and funded.” They are finding and building strength together to move forward under horrific circumstances.

      Policing as violence

      When people think of police violence, they likely think of it as a big-city thing, something that happens in Vancouver, Toronto, or even Surrey, which it does, so very often. Remember, police in Surrey and Vancouver have each killed at least three people so far this year, but those are cities of more than a half-million residents each.

      However, the events in Campbell River show that police killings can and do happen anywhere.

      Doing research on police killings, I have had people ask me, “What is going on in Campbell River?” “Is it some frontier mentality among police?” “Are more problematic officers being deployed there?” “Is it a sense that cops can do whatever they want in a place that reveres police, and their dogs, away from major media?”

      Any of these could play a part. The more straightforward answer is that this is policing. Wherever there are police, there is police violence.

      In the absence of full defunding, disarming, and dismantling of police, the mourning and need for healing will continue. At least 104 people were left dead through police actions last year in Canada. So far this year, at least 44 have been killed.

      Jeff Shantz is a full-time faculty member in the department of criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) on the unceded traditional and ancestral lands of the Kwantlen, Musqueam, Katzie, Semiahmoo, Tsawwassen, Qayqayt, and Kwikwetlem peoplees. He is the founder of the Critical Criminology Working Group and a cofounding member of the Social Justice Centre at KPU, where he is lead researcher on the Anti-Poverty/Criminalization/Social War Policing project. Follow on twitter @critcrim.