Death by Cops on the Rise in BC

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Despite new training programs, police are killing people at increasing rates in BC.

Over the past 12 months there have been 16 known police-involved deaths in BC. All of the victims were men, and many were under 30 years old. Two thirds (11) were shot and killed by police, one died after being tasered, three died while in custody, and the cause of death in one incident is unclear. The details in all these cases have yet to be disclosed. They are still under investigation by the Independent Investigations Office (IIO), the body that examines serious harm or deaths involving police, and IIO reports can take a year or more before they are released.

These stats are cold and lifeless, and they hide the overwhelming grief experienced by family and friends of those who have died, and their anger at the unnecessary death of loved ones. Jennifer Brooks, whose 20 year old son Hudson was shot by Surrey RCMP in July, has been devastated by the death of her son; “he had his whole life ahead of him … I was supposed to see his beautiful children and grandchildren,” she said. “I will never stop or rest until I see justice.”

Lien Chen, sister of Phuong Na (Tony) Du who was fatally shot by Vancouver Police within minutes of arriving on the scene, is still waiting for the IIO report and an explanation of what happened. “On November 22, a great tragedy befell our community,” reads the family statement; “ … a mother lost her son, brothers and sisters lost their sibling and the world was deprived of a gentle soul.”

Naverone Woods, killed by transit police in 2014
Naverone Woods, killed by transit police in 2014

On December 28, 2014, 23 year old Naverone Woods was shot and killed by transit police in a Safeway in Surrey. His sister Melanie wrote these words in the days following his death: “my mind, body and soul are damaged, every minute that I am awake hurts, I loved him more than words can explain.”  The family statement read at a vigil for Naverone voiced some of the anger they felt: “No one is above the law. Not even the transit police. … Family and friends and the Gitxsan community demand answers.”

The list could go on, and with every name endless tears of sadness and waves of rage against the needless deaths (some say executions) of people whose crime seems to be that they were in pain or distress.

Two newspaper articles earlier this year looked at police-involved deaths in BC and concluded that in the majority of cases, those who were killed had diagnosed mental illnesses, addiction issues, or were going through a mental health crisis due to drug use or difficult life events. Media and police reports of fatal police shootings often contain allegations of mental illness, even though in a number of cases families deny any history of it for the victims. The question is: Why are these police shootings so often immediately linked with mental illness and/or drug use?

Police reports have used a discourse of mental illness and addiction to construct the victim as socially problematic and justify the use of lethal force. Recent journal articles examine four Vancouver Police Department (VPD) policy reports on “the mental health crisis” as it relates to policing. The authors argue that these police reports consistently link mental illness with dangerousness, and they claim that in the last report (2013) the “discussion of dangerousness escalates to an emphasis on violence.” Framing the social issues of mental health and addictions in these ways not only legitimizes the expansion of police powers (and budgets), it also impacts policy makers and public perceptions. So while the reality is that people living with mental illness and addictions are far more likely to be the victims of violence, they are made out to be the sources of danger and violence within public spaces.

The police, it seems, embody their own rhetoric. When confronted by people who are in distress, they see them through police-lenses as mentally ill or in a drug-induced state. This means they are dangerous to themselves and others, and potentially violent. When the person does not immediately comply with police commands or give in to police efforts to subdue them, those police perceive them as an imminent threat to public order. Police see a person’s non-compliance with their orders as a fundamental challenge to the authority of the state and its enforcement agents. Rather than take the time to use various possible tactics of de-escalation, police eliminate the dangerous person… with impunity.

If police commands to submit are not immediately obeyed, the state sanctions police violence, often resulting in needless death. Pushing back against this violence requires fighting for a more just society where someone in distress can be perceived as needing support, not police violence. This society would be one where the structural violence of poverty and inequality are eliminated, where austerity-induced cuts to important health services are reversed, and where human solidarity and mutual care are promoted and practiced.

Police-involved Deaths in BC, Oct 2014 – present

  • Peter de Groot (Oct 13, 2014)
  • Rhett Mutch (Nov 1, 2014)
  • Dylan Judd (Nov 10, 2014)
  • Phuong Na (Tony) Du (Nov 22, 2014)
  • Naverone Woods (Dec 28, 2014)
  • Daryl Belseck (Jan 9, 2015)
  • Waylon Edey (Jan 29, 2015)
  • Kevin Mukuyama (Feb 11, 2015)
  • Jacobus Jonker (Feb 21, 2015)
  • Travis Rood (Mar 29, 2015)
  • Abdi Gani Mahamud Hirsi (April 9, 2015)
  • James Hayward (July 8, 2015)
  • James McIntyre (July 16, 2015)
  • Hudson Brooks (July 18, 2015)
  • Myles Gray (Aug 13, 2015)
  • Kenneth Hanna (Sept 18, 2015)
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