How does an argument between a landscape professional and a careless resident watering the lawn during a drought and city water use restrictions end up with the concerned landscaper being killed by police? How is it that a young man, described as quiet and peaceful, comes to be viciously attacked by police officers using chemical weapons and is beaten so brutally that his grieving family has to have a closed casket funeral?
These fundamental questions remain to be answered in the case of the police killing of Myles Gray. This despite the pleas of family members for information. Other fundamental questions stand out with regard to police involved killings of civilians in British Columbia. So too do questions about the supposed investigations unit and civilian concerns with oversight of police in the province.
How is it that in a province in which there is a supposedly independent investigations unit legislatively tasked with investigating all cases in which police harm or kill a civilian there is no report years after the killing? And how is it that despite requirements that police immediately notify the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) when such occasions of force against civilians have occurred, and involved officers not communicate with one another, that there can be both a delay in notification and communications between involved officers, yet no officer is punished or in any way held accountable? And why, in British Columbia, are so many families of victims killed by police left with no answers and no insights into the events that left their loved ones dead at the hands of officers?
Suing for Answers in the Police Killing of Myles Gray
Six months after their son was killed by police, under mysterious, troubling, and still shrouded circumstances, in a backyard in Burnaby, the parents of 33 year old Myles Gray are still seeking answers. Among the few basic facts that are known about the killing of Myles Gray on the afternoon of August 13, 2015, is that officers encountered the young man after responding to a call regarding a disturbance on the 3600 block of South East Marine Drive in Vancouver. It is also known that that afternoon Myles Gray, who worked as a greenery supplier to local florist wholesalers, had argued with a woman who was watering her garden during drought restrictions. Beyond that questions abound.
Having received no insights into their son’s death at the hands of police they have been compelled to file a lawsuit against the Vancouver police and 11 of the force’s officers. This is the only means available to them to get an honest response from police about what happened when their son’s life was taken.
In addition to the Vancouver Police Department and the officers, the Grays, along with Myles Gray’s evergreen supply company, Graystone Enterprises Ltd, also name the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Board in the lawsuit. The board is cited for “failing properly and effectively to educate, train and supervise the officers to appropriate professional standards” (quoted in Rankin 2016).
In the suit, Myles Gray’s parents, Margie and Mark Gray of Sechelt, allege that seven of those officers, still identified only as “John Does,” wrongfully killed their son by beating him to death. According to the claim, the police killed Myles Gray by using “grossly excessive force” and “inflicting massive physical trauma … with no valid, lawful reason” (quoted in Rankin 2016). The suit also alleges that officers had no lawful cause or authority to detain Myles Gray and that he was repeatedly beaten, even after he had been restrained. All officers involved have been and remain on active duty since the killing.
Margie Gray reports being told that her son died within minutes of the encounter with Vancouver officers. Her assessment is stark, and accurate: “This is ‘comply or die’ policing. Like, what was the rush to move in and kill him?” (quoted in Rankin 2016). Adds Mark Gray: “You know, they could have let him calm down …. like a person’s life is worth more than a (few) minutes, right?” (quoted in Rankin 2016). The family, and indeed many reasonably thinking people, can envision a broad range of alternative approaches that could have been taken that would not have left a young man beaten to death.
Grieving father Mark Gray is left with the terrible question: “Why was he killed off, just hunted down like a dog, killed like a dog, worse than a dog?” (quoted in Rankin 2016).
Families of almost all victims of people killed by police in Canada are provided with very little information about what the police did to their loved ones. They are almost never given the names of officers involved as these are not even made available to the general public. This is the case for Myles Gray’s parents. Their requests are straightforward and legitimate. Says Margie Gray: “I want answers. I want to know what happened that day. It’s the worst. It is horrific. And to know this went down at the hands of people you’re supposed to trust” (quoted in Rankin 2016).
What is Known
The day Myles Gray would be killed by police begins routinely enough. On a hot August day, the young greenery supplier was on a regular run of deliveries to flower wholesales in the area around Boundary Road and Marine Drive in Burnaby. Sometime around 2 pm, Gray wandered away from a loading bay and walked across a small overpass above Boundary Road, a dividing line between Burnaby and Vancouver. Coming down the overpass he found himself on the 3600 block of South East Marine Drive in Vancouver. A lover of the outdoors Myles Gray often went for walks during breaks in his delivery schedule. According to ahis father he left his keys, backpack, and identification inside the delivery van and headed off in the direction of a nearby park (Olivier 2016). Based on a map of the area it is believed that Myles Gray was heading toward Everett Crowley Park on the Vancouver side of Boundary Road. A worker at the florist supply store where Gray made his delivery saw him leaving with his headphones on. They waved at each other (Olivier 2016). According to his father: “There is a little park up there. He did the loop and was heading back. And I guess he saw this lady watering her grass” (quoted in Olivier 2016). It would prove to be a fatal encounter.
According to a neighborhood witness, Gray and a local woman ended up in an argument as she watered her garden under conditions of drought restrictions. At the time of the encounter, Metro Vancouver was under a Stage 3 restriction on water use and this included a complete ban on watering of lawns (Olivier 2016).
While it might not seem at all out of the ordinary for a greenery worker to be concerned about water usage on a lawn during a drought, for some reason police were called in this case. That fact raises real concerns about social disconnection, authoritarianism, and snitch tendencies within a fear culture, but these questions cannot be answered here.
What is clear is that 911 was called by the woman’s son and police responded (though again it might be asked why police treated an argument over lawn watering as a priority incident or why the person arguing against lawn watering during a drought was viewed as a perpetrator).
The woman involved has told reporters that she did indeed contact police after a verbal exchange with a man over her use of her water hose during a watering ban. She insists that she had never intended for anything bad to happen to him. It all began with a painful banality. She simply wanted the young man to go away (which it seems he was going to do on his own anyway). Upon finding out that the man had died through his encounter with police she says she was devastated (Olivier 2016). She says now: “I cried. Now when I talk about it, I get really angry” (quoted in Olivier 2016).
Upon encountering Gray the Vancouver police officers chase their presumed target across a Boundary Road overpass into Burnaby. Having cornered Gray in a residential yard police deploy the Orwellian named “chemical agents” and then “physical force” supposedly in an effort to restrain him. A short time after the encounter in the yard, and still an apparently short time after police first engaged him Gray was pronounced dead. It is also known that Myles Gray’s injuries were so severe that the funeral home suggested there not be an open casket funeral.
According to the lawsuit filed in BC Supreme Court, Gray was “alone, unarmed, dressed in shorts and not engaged in any criminal activity during his interactions with the seven officers” (quoted in Rankin 2016). He was killed in the secluded backyard of a house in the 8300 block of Joffre Avenue. This was a mere 10 minute walk from where the original complaint had been made to police (Olivier 2016).
Immediately after Myles Gray was killed his father Mark visited the backyard where his son was killed by police. The yard on Joffre Avenue backs into a steep ravine filled with blackberry bushes (Olivier 2016). The father believes his son was at that point cornered with nowhere to go. This raises further questions about why police could not have engaged him more cautiously and communicatively. Why did they quickly move to force? He could have posed no harm to the general public or bystanders. He could not have gotten away. Mark Gray says that when he visited the yard there were still signs of the struggle. He saw patches of blood, torn up grass, and a destroyed rhododendron bush (Olivier 2016). The thought of what happened is unbearable:
“I can’t get past what happened — I can’t move on. I just feel bad that I wasn’t there to help him. I just wish I was there to help him. I would have in a second died for my son. I still would love to be dead and he still been alive. The thought of him, thinking how he suffered…” (quoted in Olivier 2016)
According to a police news release issued after the killing, one of the few communications from any state authorities in this case, Vancouver police reported that their members responded to a call of a distraught man causing a disturbance. The police account reads in part:
“He [Gary] became agitated and additional officers were called to the scene. Attempts to subdue the man with chemical agents were unsuccessful. A physical altercation ensued, resulting in injuries to the man and six officers. Paramedics were called to attend to the man. He died at the scene.” (quoted in Rankin 2016)
None of this, including the timelines involved (when police were sent, when reinforcements were sent or arrived, when chemical agents were applied, what the altercation consisted of) has been confirmed by independent sources. No specific details on any of this have been provided publicly in any way.
Even more the lawsuit suggests interference by police with the investigation by the Independent Investigations Office in British Columbia, the unit charged with investigating cases in which civilians are injured or killed by police. The lawsuit alleges that “the police unlawfully impeded the investigation … by the Independent Investigations Office by failing to immediately notify the IIO of the killing” (quoted in Rankin 2016). Myles Gray’s parents allege that during the delay, “officers failed to preserve evidence” and “conferred among themselves” (quoted in Rankin 2016). These claims are similar to the case of police involved in the killing of Robert Dziekanski in which the officers responsible were found to have colluded in crafting their explanation of what happened (before evidence in a citizen video showed what really occurred). Ironically perhaps it was the inquiry into the Dziekanski killing that led to the formation of the provincial police oversight body in British Columbia.
Sounds of Silence: The Authorities (Do Not) Respond
Another thing that is known is that for six months authorities have remained silent on the cause or he conditions surrounding Myles Gray’s death. The blue wall of silence remains solidly in place in this case. The Vancouver Police Department only offer this: “It wouldn’t be appropriate for the VPD to comment on an ongoing IIO investigation or a pending civil process” (quoted in Rankin). For its part the BC Coroners Service claims that it cannot comment while the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) investigates the case. At the same time the IIO, through spokesperson Marten Youssef insists: “Our investigation in this critical incident is ongoing. We are currently waiting on third party reports” (quoted in Rankin 2016).
Incredibly, and this is a situation we have discussed previously in some detail, one of the main reasons put forward by the IIO for the ongoing delays in its investigations is the fact that police in British Columbia are harming and killing so many people over the last few years. As Youseff claims:
“The timeliness of our investigations has suffered recently, in large part, as the result of a rash of officer-involved shootings and police-involved fatalities throughout the province that began in September of 2014 and continued for the better part of a year (a total of 20 shootings and fatalities in a period of 12 months).” (quoted in Rankin 2016)
One might ask whether the delays in the face of growing police violence is related to the training hat IIO investigators receive from the Justice Institute of British Columbia, the training academy staffed by and geared toward police officers. One might also ask why provincial resources are not forthcoming given the apparent need to step up investigations of officers through the IIO?
In the face of this terrible situation the Gray family asks for de-escalation training to be improved within the Vancouver Police Department. Their wish is that changes will come, in part through the impetus of their lawsuit, so that their son’s death will not have been in vain.
Gray’s parents knew him as someone who was gentle and walked away from fights. If he was involved in some sort of difficulty on August 13 it was not in character. In fact there is still no evidence that suggests Myles Gray was either in a vulnerable state or suffering from some sort of mental health crisis (apart from any stress caused by being chased and attacked by police of course)a psychotic break. Neither is there any evidence to suggest that he was under the influence of any intoxicants. On the morning he died he was reported to be happy and in normal spirits according to his workers. While granting that something could have upset him later, though there is no evidence for this, the family and colleagues also note that it need not have led to his death: “Maybe he was having an emotional meltdown. He was probably in a vulnerable state. They pursued him for sure. What he needed probably was some compassion” (quoted in Rankin 2016).
And compassion is certainly what Myles Gray did not receive. The list of people in need of compassion who instead encounter police is a growing one in the Canadian context.
Comply or Die
As in numerous other cases in which several police encounter someone who is spatially contained with nowhere to go, and no way to harm bystanders, there are serious questions why police so quickly resort to lethal force. The mindset and practice of the police assert a framework in which the only option is “comply or die.” A purely authoritarian assertion. Recommendations have long been made about better training, including de-escalation training. Others have raised the possibility of mental health or health care professionals responding instead of or along with police.
These are questions that weigh on Mark Gray. He suggests: “They should definitely have better training. If there’s seven of them, one should have said, ‘Hey, let’s back off’ and treat this a little differently in how it went down. It could have gone down a lot differently. And Myles could have been alive today” (quoted in Rankin 2016).
This sentiment is echoed by Margie Gray. In her words:
“There needs to be a change in the way they deal with people. They need more training in their de-escalation skills. They just need more training, period … no one should have to live through what we’ve been living through. It’s a living hell. I do not want any family to ever have to go through what we’ve been going through.” (quoted in Rankin 2016)
She further adds: “Even getting the details are not going to bring my son back. But in going forward, hopefully there is going to be change. This cannot happen to anybody else. Because I feel like if this happened to our family, it can literally happen to anyone’s family” (quoted in Olivier 2016). Given the histories of police killings of civilians in Canada there is little reason for optimism that charges will be laid against any of the officers involved.
And no family should have to go through any of this. In too many cases police are deployed in cases for which they are neither prepared nor equipped. At the same time they interact in those situations, even where the behavior that brought the call is minor, on an absolutist basis pursuing the authoritarian and violent lines that have been ingrained in them (and which are the basis of their operations). With no leeway, or inclination, to soften the approach or act in a more nuanced way. Of course, real care, service, and protection of regular humans in need has never been the purpose or role of police in state capitalist contexts (or any other context for that matter).
Conclusion: Why Call the Cops Anyway?
From another, more critical, perspective one might question why state authorities are deployed in such circumstances at all. Clearly arguments over lawn care, and civic responsibilities during water shortages, should not result in calls to the state or to the deployment of armed forces. Larger questions remain about sociality and social engagement in anomic, detached, privatized societies. One of the problems with policing is that it breeds reliance or dependence on policing. People do not resolve social differences, even minor ones, through discussion or agreement to disagree, Instead the initial, almost reflexive, response is to call the cops. And unfortunately the cops are all too willing to oblige (it builds public relations and helps maintain or increase budgets after all). So-called “tough on crime” or broken windows approaches I the context of broader socio-political cultures of fear and panic only make things worse.
The sociologist Emile Durkheim suggested that in stratified societies with a broad division of labor, as in advanced capitalist modernity, are subject to conditions of anomie or a breakdown of shared norms, values, and beliefs (the conscience collective). Such societies are marked by a lack of trust among people and a tendency toward dependence on authorities. Under these conditions, and manipulable fear that accompanies them, people turn too readily to authorities and are too accepting of the actions taken by authorities however egregious they might be. Thus police are able to kill and get away with killing while remaining silent or worse obstructionist or disassembling in the face of questions from the loved ones of those whose lives have been taken.
As Mark Gray puts it: “I want my son back, but that’s never going to happen. It could be (that) other people will have their son killed, and it’s just not right the way they treat people. It’s just not right” (quoted in Ranking 2016).
Olivier, Cassidy. 2016. “The Day Myles Gray Died.” Vancouver Sun. March 24. http://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/the-day-myles-gray-died
Rankin, Eric. 2016. “Myles Gray’s Parents, Haunted by Alleged ‘Wrongful Killing,’ Sue VPD.” CBC Investigates. February 18. http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/canada/british-columbia/myles-gray-violent-take-down-physical-altercation-burnaby-vpd-1.3446690