Victims of police murder on trial: How BC’s IIO uses “mental health” to clear killer cops

In the span of one month, BC’s police watchdog, the Independent Investigations Office (IIO), cleared RCMP officers for killing civilians who were experiencing mental health distress in two separate incidents. In August 2019, Ridge Meadows RCMP officers responded to a request to bring Kyaw Din to the hospital and instead killed him. In January 2020, Lytton RCMP officers responded to a call about Barry Shantz, who had made suicidal comments. The IIO report says that he informed police that he wanted them to shoot him and they obliged.

Between 2000 and 2017, of the hundreds of instances where a police officer killed a civilian in Canada, less than 4% resulted in charges, and out of the 18 charges laid, only 2 resulted in convictions. That means the likelihood of a police officer being convicted after killing someone in Canada is less than half a percentage. In BC in particular, the IIO investigated 237 instances of police-involved deaths between 2012 and 2020 and recommended charges in only 4 cases. Not a single officer in BC has been convicted of any criminal wrongdoing for killing someone during the existence of the IIO. And neither Din nor Shantz pulled the trigger on the guns that killed them, but both victims are held responsible for their own deaths by IIO Chief Civilian Director Ronald MacDonald. 

The IIO is a state institution mandated to investigate the police by the same body that empowers their monopoly on violence. The word “Independent” in the organization’s name means it does not operate under the control of a police chief. But it does serve the same class and colonial interests as those police chiefs. In other words, the IIO has a different manager than the RCMP, but it has the same boss. In order to justify police murders time and time again, it extends, feeds, and reinforces cop logic. 

While the individuality of the Chief Civilian Director can’t fundamentally change the nature of the IIO, the current Civilian Director Ronald MacDonald has an exceptionally sparse track record of recommending charges. Under MacDonald’s direction especially, BC’s police watchdog is part of a patchwork of institutions knitted together to legislate social control, through either direct, violent force, or coercion.

BC’s IIO writes “mental illness” into the cause of police killings

IIO Chief Civilian Director Ron MacDonald. (Tom Zytaruk/Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows News)

According to IIO public reports, about twenty percent of police killings they have investigated were carried out in response to mental health emergencies. In every one of these cases, the IIO has cleared killer officers of any wrongdoing, finding the victim’s mental health to blame instead. The IIO is stingy about information it releases to the public so what we learn from them is always an incomplete picture. For example, out of 32 cases of police-involved deaths that the IIO investigated in 2017, the Office only released public reports in 7 cases. Based on this partial information, between 2012 and 2020, the IIO reports that 28 people in mental health distress were killed by police who showed up to perform “protective detentions.” Most of those 28 were shot to death with bullets or “less lethal” projectiles. Some died from tasers, and some were beaten to death. 

The majority of the IIO’s public reports notably lack any information about the racialization of police murder victims, despite the well-documented overcriminalization of Black and Indigenous people. These omissions obscure the role of white supremacy in the deaths of Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour. The role of politicians, cops, and bodies like the IIO, in cases where white supremacy is enforced and expressed through the sheer, naked violence of cops and civilians getting away with the murder of Black and Indigenous people, is to create a raceblind narrative about threat and danger that explains why Canadian society accepts the murder of Black and Indigenous people as natural. The language of mental illness, while similarly shoring up the power of the racist, capitalist, and colonial state, operates differently but in complement with white supremacy. 

The deployment of “mental health” to justify police killings and expand police powers, and the IIO’s legitimization of the “threat” of mental illness in its investigations of those killings, point to how various forms of the state’s hard (police) and soft (health care) power work together not only to control people but also to organize a consensus over who is and isn’t “dangerous.” 

The IIO’s ostensibly “independent” investigations give the appearance of justice, while legitimizing and writing reason for the violence that police use as their default language in crisis response.

Police violence is a common response to 911 calls for mental health support, but the case-by-case deployment of the IIO allows it to avoid answering the question of patterns of police violence. Many studies reveal that victims of police killing frequently have, or are assumed by the police to have, mental illness, which suggests at the very least that stigmatizing perceptions guide police behavior at a subjective level. But these studies only scratch the surface of how that stigma is produced and reproduced. Mental illness is manufactured as a danger not only by cops who kill people that they preemptively or retroactively label as mentally ill or suicidal, but by police watchdogs, like the IIO, as well as by laws and statutes, like BC’s Mental Health Act, which was passed in 1997 to give cops the power to detain people they decide are mentally ill.

In this growing feedback loop of social control, the IIO performs not only a juridical function by protecting the police, but perhaps more importantly, an ideological one. The IIO’s ostensibly “independent” investigations give the appearance of justice, while legitimizing and writing reason for the violence that police use as their default language in crisis response. 

While many people who encounter police violence have mental illness, the powerful interplay between policing and mental health stigma endows police with the power to decide who they will treat as mentally ill. Because police and the IIO cast people with mental illness, especially diagnoses considered more serious, like schizophrenia, as dangerous, irrational, and debilitating, they are also seen as “naturally” in need of social control. This means that victims of police murders, when they suffer from mental illness or are labelled as mentally ill, are generally blamed by cops and by IIO Chief Civilian Investigator Ronald MacDonald as responsible for their own deaths.

The myth of “dangerous schizophrenia” 

In the US, a conservative estimate is that one in four victims of police killings have serious mental illnesses, and in Canada, 70% of people who die during police contact experience mental illness or substance use. The general public continues to perceive people with mental illness as dangerous, rather than in danger, a view that has only grown since the 1950s, according to research conducted in the United States that’s been corroborated in a Canadian context. And the associations between dangerousness and mental illness are strongest with schizophrenia. A 2018 study in the US found that over 60% of respondents perceived people with schizophrenia as dangerous to others, an increase since 2006, and 44-59% supported forced hospitalization, an increase since 1996. 

The rise in mental health stigma is commonly attributed to deinstitutionalization – the broad pattern of shutting down centralized psychiatric institutions that has occurred in both Canada and the United States since the 1970s. But “deinstitutionalization” is a misleading phrase. While shutting down psychiatric institutions proper, governments have also shifted funds to expand the power of other institutions over every realm of society. People with mental illness have been kicked out of hospital beds to be placed into other institutions like jails and “supportive” housing. Instead of whitecoats overseeing psych wards, redcoats exercise Mental Health Act invasions of our private bedrooms. The conflation of people with mental illnesses with danger to the public directly benefits the police, who have exploited psychiatric deinstitutionalization to expand their budgets and control over criminalized populations. 

MacDonald’s farce of a fair investigation helps cover up how police interventions are the cause of violence, reinforcing the tautological claim that police need to respond to mental illness because they already do.

The Vancouver Police Department relies upon and popularizes the narrative that people with mental illness are a violent threat in order to justify increases to their budgets and to their power to detain people without the restraints of due process and Charter rights. The VPD’s 2008 report on mental health-related police incidents, “Lost in Translation,” recommends a general expansion of the police’s powers of surveillance and detention, including: more supportive housing; for local hospitals to “speed up” the admission of people detained by police under the Mental Health Act by waiving the necessity of doctors to assess them; and a database of individuals’ mental health histories for “mental health service providers” to access. A follow up report suggested that the police form “standing bodies” with hospitals and Vancouver Coastal Health, and reiterated the need for governments to make it easier for police to detain people in mental health crisis, suggesting that the Ministry of Health make changes to the Mental Health Act to “reduce police wait times.”

The IIO assists in the expansion of police power by deemphasizing the structural forces, like poverty or colonization, that thrust people into contact with the police, and emphasizing the need for police to respond to real or imagined mental health crises by constructing mental illness as inherently threatening. The individualizing pathology that MacDonald relies on in his investigation into Kyaw Din’s 2019 death inverts the question, “Why did the police kill Kyaw?”, instead asking, “How did Kyaw get himself killed by the cops?” MacDonald’s farce of a fair investigation helps cover up how police interventions are the cause of violence, reinforcing the tautological claim that police need to respond to mental illness because they already do.

Death by “mental illness” profiling  

In a study of 409 incidents of police shootings that happened between 1980 and 2001, Canadian police killed roughly half their victims. Of the 200 deaths, 53 were categorized as “suicide-by-cop” – meaning that the police claim the victim was trying to commit suicide before or during police intervention. “Suicide by cop” is the official IIO explanation for the police murders of Barry Shantz and of an unnamed man killed by RCMP in Chilliwack, both in 2020. 

A more recent study by CBC found that most people who die in or shortly after police custody experience mental health or drug use issues. In the US, people with untreated mental health issues are estimated to be 2% of the general population, yet make up anywhere between 25-50% of victims of police killings, meaning they are 16 times more likely to be killed by cops than the general public. Not only do police mobilize panic around mental illness to brutalize people with mental illness, but they raise the spectre of mental illness in order to justify their violence, especially against poor and racialized people, who are already overpoliced.  

In some cases police kill someone who has been profiled as having a mental illness, but the killing is explained in other ways, clouding out the victim in a thick fog of institutional pathologization. On Christmas Day 2019, staff at a supportive housing building in Victoria called the Victoria Police Department because, the IIO reports, a resident was “intoxicated” and “threatening residents.” When the police arrived, she barricaded herself in her room and started a fire in her garbage can. Victoria police officers broke down the door and shot her three times in the head and neck with an “ARWEN (Anti-Riot Weapon, Enfield) less-lethal launcher,” killing her. The IIO report, which exonerated the murderers of any wrongdoing, does not record the killing as a result of a mental health call. But it is impossible to understand killings like this one outside of the context of the de-professionalized, “community” mental health institution that this victim of police murder had her life contained and snuffed out within.

Kyaw Din: Murdered by police and then found guilty of his own death

Yin Yin Din, sister of Kyaw Din , speaks at a rally in Maple Ridge (The News files)

In August 2019, Kyaw Din, a low-income, Burmese man suffering from schizophrenia, was murdered by the RCMP in Maple Ridge. For over a year his family rallied to bring justice for Kyaw (pronounced “jaw”), demanding that the police be held accountable and that the IIO recommend murder charges for the officers involved. After a painful, slow, and uncommunicative wait the IIO finally released its report over a year after Kyaw’s death. In it, Chief Civilian Director MacDonald absolves the police of killing Kyaw, scrutinizing Kyaw more than the armed officers whose stigma-underlaid decision-making ended his life. 

The finding of the IIO investigation was all but fixed in advance: the likelihood of a police officer being convicted for murder is less than half a percentage. In order to exonerate killer cops over and over again, MacDonald distorts evidence. His chief tactic is to take everything the police say as an authoritative account of truth. For MacDonald to do this in Kyaw’s case, he centered his investigation on Kyaw, rather than the cops who killed him. 

The figure of Kyaw monopolizes causality in the report, which suggests that his actions determined the police’s behaviors, rather than the other way around. The report uncritically justifies the most violent and brash behavior of the anonymized police officers by heralding them as the humanized subjects, valiantly responding to an objective “threat.” MacDonald does not need to substantiate that supposed threat because he treats Kyaw as an externality, an objective danger in the world like a hurricane or a forest fire that the police are forced to navigate. For example, the police’s assumption that Kyaw might hurt himself is accepted, overlooking the possibility that the police were responding to dangers that were not present and filling in what they didn’t know with overdetermined caricatures of people with schizophrenia. 

MacDonald’s report creates a narrative reason that explains the state’s legal sanction of the police to kill: his story is that Kyaw, like all victims of police violence, was responsible for his own death.

The convenient spectre of self-harm

There is no one less powerful than a person who is shot, tasered, or beaten to death. But stigma inverts how power is represented, individualizing and centralizing violence in the person who is killed, rather than the society that kills them.

The IIO report follows the lead of the police officers it investigated – even without their direct testimony, because Kyaw’s anonymous killers, like most killer cops, refused to provide testimony to the IIO. MacDonald justifies Kyaw’s murder by inflating the spectre of self-harm provided by a witness officer who claimed that police were concerned Kyaw would harm himself. 

British Columbia’s Mental Health Act permits police to apprehend and involuntarily hospitalize people they think have a mental illness and might harm themself or others if left alone. Police aren’t trained to be mental health clinicians but the broad language in the Act ensures that they have sweeping powers: the police can apprehend anyone who is “likely to endanger that person’s own safety or the safety of others” and is “apparently a person with a mental disorder.” 

MacDonald states, without any elaboration, that “officers had to be concerned about self-harm, given [Kyaw’s] state of delusion, even though there was no specific evidence on this point [emphasis added].” He justifies the police entering Kyaw’s room with the ominous observation that “there was the unknown risk of what [Kyaw] might do while left alone in the room.” Indeed, there was zero evidence that Kyaw was going to harm himself, and plenty of evidence that he was not likely to harm himself. 

Kyaw had no history of suicidality or self-harm, had not expressed any desire to hurt himself, and his sister, his primary caregiver, told police officers that she did not believe he was in any danger of hurting himself. MacDonald’s fantasy of the self-harm that he speculates the police officers “had” to be concerned about is made legible only by power. The violent power the cops used to define Kyaw by killing him is also the discursive power MacDonald reaches for to define Kyaw in his investigation. Like mold growing out of a rotten piece of fruit, mental health stigma emerges from the state’s expansive institutions of hard and soft power. By condemning people deemed “mentally ill” to institutional management, stigma both justifies their powerlessness while explaining it away. There is no one less powerful than a person who is shot, tasered, or beaten to death. But stigma inverts how power is represented, individualizing and centralizing violence in the person who is killed, rather than the society that kills them. 

Even by police standards, the officers who killed Kyaw failed to communicate with him in a manner that is consistent with crisis intervention. They did not introduce themselves, announce their presence, ask Kyaw to come out, or explain what they were going to do. “Are you okay?” is not a de-escalating utterance, though MacDonald embellishes witness accounts by characterizing the question as “friendly,” showing his pro-police bias. MacDonald glosses over gaps in the police officers’ self-report of the night they murdered Kyaw, because he can happily fill those gaps with stereotypes and stigmatizing beliefs about people with mental illness. MacDonald’s, and, presumably, police assumptions about Kyaw are never tested, nor is their behavior measured in terms of how they escalated the situation. 

White supremacy as invisibilized “criminal neglect” 

Against the “unknown risk” of Kyaw harming himself for the first time in his life was a less unknown possibility: that the arrival of his elder siblings would deescalate the situation. The police knew that the Din family is Burmese, but failed to consider differences in culture between the Dins and their own model of patriarchal white Canadian authoritarianism. Had they considered as relevant the collectivist features of Burmese culture, which increased the likelihood that Kyaw would be more compliant to his elder siblings than to his younger sister Yin Yin, they might not have forced a premature confrontation with him that ended with his death. 

World Health Organization research has long shown that people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other psychotic spectrum disorders have a far better prognosis in countries outside of the imperialist West. In the United States, racialized people with these disorders are more likely to receive a poorer quality of care when they access health services and their families are more likely to care for them. Family support increases the likelihood that racialized people with schizophrenia adhere to their medication, and is generally associated with mitigating symptoms, probably because of a culture of interdependence that resists and offsets the cult of individuality that is hegemonic in imperialist society. Unsurprisingly, researchers who focus on culturally-sensitive treatment of schizophrenia emphasize the importance of involving the families in treatment and therapy. 

The IIO report, however, never mentions the impact or importance of Kyaw’s social and familial experience as a Burmese man. MacDonald casts Kyaw’s sister Yin Yin as an unreliable source on his behavior, despite being a caregiver who knew him better than the police officers who had never met Kyaw before invading his bedroom and shooting him dead. The officers’ decision to ignore her plea to wait for his other family members is never scrutinized as being culturally inappropriate – rather, MacDonald confidently asserts that there was “no reason to expect that the participation of other family members would be rewarded with more success.”

If the police officers had been attentive to the negative impacts of their white ethnocentrism, they might well have asked Yin Yin what reason she had to believe that her sibling would be more successful. If they had asked, Yin Yin could have emphasized the importance of birth order in commanding respect and the maternal relationship between Kyaw and his eldest sister Hla Myaing, who was ten years older than him. Yin Yin explains, “In our culture older brothers and sisters are like fathers and mothers. We even have a proverb, ‘older sister is mom, older brother is father.’ We have a very different culture. Kyaw always listened to me, but when he was not taking medication and confused, he wouldn’t listen to me, but he would listen to our older brother and sister.” 

There were reasons to wait – but neither the police nor IIO Investigator Ronald MacDonald wanted to look for them. 

For the police to remain innocent, their victims must be guilty

In exonerating Kyaw’s murderers, MacDonald is doing his part in manufacturing mental illness as a threat, unpredictable and unknowable and yet dangerous and therefore in need of containment and neutralization by police. The Mental Health Act looms behind his report, providing the legal basis of MacDonald’s knowledge about mental illness. And so does the reinstitutionalization of mental illness in extra-asylum institutions of control, like prisons, supportive housing, and “frontline” cops wielding the Mental Health Act in one hand and a pistol in the other. The power animating MacDonald’s rhetorical thrust is violence; it is the murder of Kyaw reenacted as a different deed – one that proves the rightness of his death. 

The logic and conclusions in Ronald MacDonald’s IIO report on Kyaw Din’s killing by Ridge Meadows RCMP officers are evidence that the Canadian state will never deliver justice for victims of police murder. The IIO is incapable of providing justice to victims of police brutality because it is an ideological extension of the police and the needs of the colonial land theft and capitalist property relations that command those police. While the immediate lesson of Kyaw’s senseless death is that poor, racialized, and mentally ill people cannot trust the police, the lesson of MacDonald’s investigation is that guilt and innocence don’t matter, because victims of police murders are, as a rule, held responsible for their own deaths. 

If the state puts victims of its violence on trial for their own killings, then we must respond by putting the state on trial and rallying support and defense from outside courtrooms and the kangaroo courts of police watchdog offices. Only by building an independent abolitionist movement that vigorously defends victims of the police will we ever see justice for Kyaw.

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