By Jeff Shantz
Three dead in two weeks, and with one thing in common: the Surrey RCMP.
While policing has been, rightly, under the microscope in Surrey during the last few years, this has mostly focused on the loud and often angry debates over the transition from the RCMP to the Surrey Polce Service.
Police violence in the city has been largely excluded or excused from the conversation. Until now.
The awful events of April have shifted some attention from the financial costs of policing to the human ones.
Three deaths in two weeks
RCMP shot and killed a man in Surrey in the morning of April 1, 2022. The Independent Investigations Office (IIO) of B.C. reports that police received calls regarding a man alleged to be involved in several incidents, including a carjacking. RCMP reportedly spotted a man near the intersection of 142A Street and 87A Avenue who they believed to be the person involved in one of the earlier matters.
Officers engaged in a foot pursuit of a man they believed matched the description of the person seen previously. At some point during their engagement, there was an unspecified “altercation”, and police shot the man, killing him.
Then, on Aprill 8, RCMP shot and killed another man. The initial IIO report says that RCMP were called to the 13200 block of 108 Avenue for a wellness check on a man who “had threatened self-harm with a weapon in a public place”. A man was located inside a residence and police shot him. He died at hospital. Later reports said that members of the Lower Mainland Emergency Response Team were also at the scene.
The two killings by RCMP in a week were so troubling that the Surrey Now-Leader was prompted to publish an April 13 opinion piece expressing concern and asking for answers. The article suggested that perhaps “something needs fixing in order to prevent more police incidents from going sideways, for lack of a better term. And sideways these went, because two people are dead.”
The op-ed concluded: “So let it be done.” Something of a “what the hell is going on?” moment for a paper that had been broadly supportive of the RCMP in Surrey.
Then it happened again. On April 15, police arrested a man and detained him in Surrey RCMP cells. At around 2:35 p.m. the next day, the man was found unresponsive in his cell. He was pronounced dead there.
Troubling tales of police killings in Surrey
Another cause for concern is the fact that following previous killings in Surrey, the RCMP have released self-serving public statements regarding the incidents that might have distorted the facts and even amounted to victim-blaming.
When RCMP shot and killed Hudson Brooks outside a South Surrey detachment on July 18, 2015, they initially suggested that there had been an exchange of gunfire between Brooks and the RCMP resulting in a gunshot wound to one officer. Police later claimed that Brooks was suicidal, as if being suicidal could legitimize police killing someone.
In March 2017 police audio of Hudson Brooks’s shooting was posted on YouTube. It dispelled the notion of a gunfight and confirmed that the RCMP officer who was shot during the encounter had shot herself. In the audio, a woman’s voice can be heard saying, “I shot myself.” This is followed by a man’s voice calling for emergency services: “Suspect is critical. We need a code. We need it now.”
On March 29, 2019, RCMP officers shot and killed Nona McEwan and Randy Crosson in a home in Surrey. Police described the killings as part of a “hostage taking” and for more than a month publicly implied that Crosson had killed McEwan. When asked if police might have killed McEwan, Integrated Homicide Investigation Team (IHIT) spokesperson Cpl. Frank Jang told the Surrey Now-Leader: “Well, no, I mean we’re there to conclusively determine the cause of death. We would be investigating the other person.”
When asked for clarification, Jang added: “No, I mean that’s part of the investigation but because there was two deaths, one believed to be a police-involved shooting, one is not, the two agencies are simultaneously involved. There’s two separate investigations happening.”
This portrayal of events was ultimately shown to be misleading, as the IIO reported that RCMP had shot and killed both McEwan and Crosson. Certainly, officers who were there and IHIT member Jang would have known that only police had guns at the scene and thus police had done the shooting.
When we parse police statements and look for answers in the wake of police-involved deaths, we need to keep this recent past in mind.
It is still true that too little attention and even less critical commentary are provided when police kill in Canada. Police control the flow of information when they kill (as often the only ones present besides the deceased), and media too often simply replay police statements.
Yet killings by police happen more often than is often assumed in this country. My own research involves documenting police-involved deaths in Canada. Last year, there were at least 104 police-involved deaths, both people who were killed outright by police and those who died through police actions (lack of care in custody for example).
There have been at least 25 so far in 2022.
Police in Surrey have certainly played their part in this. There have been at least eight police-involved deaths in Surrey since 2019. More than Vancouver. At least two involved wellness checks. Cause for concern, to be sure.
Anyone expecting the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) to hold to account the officers responsible will likely be disappointed. Between 2014 and 2017, IIO referrals to the Crown resulted in only five charges against police. Across Canada, police-oversight-agency investigations lead to charges against police in only three to nine percent of all cases.