The Calgary man shot and killed by in the city’s Huntington Hills neighborhood was 53-year-old David McQueen, a quadriplegic. McQueen was killed by Calgary police on Sunday, January 24, 2016, after what was reported as an hours long standoff. More than a dozen officers, including tactical team members, responded to the situation in the northwest neighborhood at around 4:40 PM. McQueen had experienced years of neglect, marginalization, and lack of support from various levels of government and the health care systems following a spinal injury suffered in an accident that left him quadriplegic in 1994. The victim had actively sought to improve his life situation and actively sought support from government and social service and health care agencies, with repeated lack of proper assistance over decades. Police shot McQueen immediately as the man exited his home in his wheelchair. Police said he had a handgun which had been fired in the neighborhood.
There was at least one person who was familiar with and cared about David McQueen’s situation. Unfortunately she was barred by police from speaking with him in the moments before he was killed by police. McQueen’s longtime caregiver, Isabelle Templeton, was talking over the phone with McQueen even as police surrounded his house. Templeton went to the scene and tried to talk with McQueen directly but was prevented by police. She heard the shots that killed McQueen while she was there on the street. In her words: “We heard the shots fired. We heard when we were sitting out on the street talking to the police officer. We didn’t know what was happening, but we knew something was going on” (quoted in CBC 2016).
Templeton related to reporters that McQueen used to call her his “Calgary mom.” She affirmed that the victim was a “very gentle and very caring man” (quoted in CBC 2016). Templeton had no guess as to what, if anything, might have finally pushed McQueen over the line into more public expression of frustration. In her recollection: “Nothing like this ever came up. I just don’t know what triggered it” (quoted in CBC 2016). At the same time she did acknowledge that McQueen had experienced a great deal of suffering with little to no support from public officials or the health care system. In her view: “Something did [break], but I think a lot of it was pain. Just pain. He was in so much pain” (quoted in CBC 2016). In the end, “He just got kind of desperate” (quoted in CBC 2016).
Templeton acknowledged that McQueen was particularly frustrated with the healthcare system and the government, with apparent justification. She noted that he was stuck in a broken wheelchair and left alone without proper homecare. She also confirmed that McQueen was angry and distrustful of police based on the character of their interactions with him. Again she concluded: “I think he just got kind of desperate. I don’t know. I know I was getting desperate, just going to see him, and there was nothing you could do” (quoted in CBC 2016).
McQueen had appeared in a video for Easter Seals as part of one of the agency’s campaigns. He appears in the video along with his beloved dog, his main companion. A spokesperson with Easter Seals Calgary, Stephanie Rosch, acknowledged that she knew of McQueen and confirmed that the video was filmed as part of a public-service announcement in 2009 (CBC 2016). Easter Seals Alberta CEO, Susan Boivin released a brief statement: “We are very saddened to hear the news of the passing of Dave McQueen. He was a former client of Easter Seals’ Equipment and Support Services program, but we have not had any contact with him for many years” (quoted in CBC 2016).
McQueen’s had long documented the lack of support and what he experienced as mistreatment on behalf of the federal and provincial governments, and the healthcare system. His Facebook page contains numerous, lengthy posts detailing his experiences of injustice. McQueen describes how he suffered a spinal injury after diving into Calgary’s Sikome Lake in 1994, not realizing how shallow the man-made body of water actually is. He outlines his subsequent, unsuccessful attempts to sue the Alberta government over his injury (CBC 2016). Far from receiving support, several of McQueen’s publicly available Facebook postings suggest that he had come to believe that his computer and phone were being monitored by the authorities. McQueen posted that police had targeted him in the past and he expressed anger at how he had been treated by them.
Alberta Liberal Party leader David Swann released a statement in response to the killing reporting that McQueen had “reached out frequently” to his constituency office. He noted that McQueen was always polite. Swann suggested that McQueen’s story was one example of the numerous cases of people falling through the cracks in Alberta. Yet he does not seem to recognize his own possible role in that given the fact that McQueen had contacted his office frequently looking for assistance. Swann did say in his statement on McQueen: “He was suffering from an obvious, and serious, mental illness and it was often difficult to understand where he was coming from or how we could help.” According to Swann this is another example, if an extreme and violent one, of the great need for changes to the system. Wrote Swann: “David was also angry. Angry with the injury which all but paralyzed him, angry with a system he felt failed him, and angry with those who represented that system.” That includes police whom he felt had targeted and mistreated rather than helping him. This in a health care context requiring supportive rather than police services in the first place. Swann’s statement concluded: “My thoughts are also with those, like my staff, who interacted with Mr. McQueen and are left, today, feeling they could have done more.”
On January 15 McQueen posted that his main companion, his dog had died. The post goes on to outline his anger over Calgary police and a Calgary politician, as well as his neighbours who may have been responsible for police interactions with him. Templeton notes that the death of his dog was devastating because it increased his loneliness and lack of companionship. Incredibly, Templeton suggested that healthcare workers would not visit McQueen because of his dog.
The police killing of David McQueen must be contextualized within the apparently growing trend in Canada of police involved killings of people experiencing mental health crises or distress. While statistics have not been kept in a systematic or reliable manner in Canada, between 2004 and 2014, the percentage of those cases of police killings of civilians involving people in mental crisis grew: they now account for about 40 percent of civilian shooting deaths at the hands of police (Firsthand 2016). Researchers for the documentary film Hold Your Fire report that in 2014, Toronto police answered 20,000 interactions involving people in mental crisis while Vancouver police say they respond to nearly 30,000 calls each year involving people experiencing mental illness (Firsthand 2016).
Reasons for the apparent growth in police involved interactions, and lethal interactions, with people in mental health crisis are numerous and include economic crisis which spurs emotional crisis for more people; lack of proper and adequate community health services (and government cuts to services in the context of austerity regimes that target programs of need to the working class and poor for reduction or elimination), and; law and order and broken windows policing regimes that send police first to deal with any social disturbance. Even more, commentators like the producers of Hold Your Fire suggest that the real reason for more lethal actions undertaken by police in addressing people dealing with metal health crisis (and often police kill people upon first sight of the victim, often within one or two minutes of encounter) is improper, inadequate, outmoded, and regressive police training. This more than anything else (Firsthand 2016). We might suggest, however, that this is built into the very structure of the police as an institution of violence, repression, domination, and control.
The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) is investigating as is policy in Alberta when police are involved in incidents resulting in injuries or fatalities to civilians. Yet there is reason for concern about the investigation given statements made by Calgary police Chief Roger Chaffin following McQueen’s killing by police. Chaffin said he expects the shooter’s motivation to be addressed as part of the investigation. The chief also, not surprisingly, stood by the actions of the officers responding to the incident despite the fact that no investigation has been conducted or completed. And despite the fact that the victim was quadriplegic and confined to a wheelchair.
Chief Chaffin also reported that McQueen was known to police but did not suggest that this was related to any wrongdoing on behalf of the victim. Indeed he had to admit that none of the visits to McQueen’s home involved anything of a criminal nature. Such statements about victims being known to police is a common tactic used by police in Canada to cast aspersions toward victims and to damage their reputation publicly, or suggest without evidence that they have a criminal history and are, therefore, less deserving of public sympathy. Often victims are known to police only because of a dubious stop by police without cause, as in cases of “carding,” or because the victim actually called police for some type of support or assistance. In fact a search of court documents by reporters found that McQueen had no criminal record in Alberta. According to Chief Chaffin the Calgary Police Department is and was concerned with the well-being of their officers first and above all else.
CBC. 2016. “Calgary Shooter Killed by Police Was Frustrated with Government, Health System, Says Caregiver.” CBC News. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/david-mcqueen-calgary-huntington-hills-shooter-killed-1.3418843
Firsthand. 2016. “Hold Your Fire.” CBC News. http://www.cbc.ca/firsthand/episodes/hold-your-fire