Monthly Archives: April 2016

Montréal Police Kill André Benjamin: Mental Distress and Victimization, Again

Police killings of people apparently experiencing mental distress or ill health are becoming an all too regular occurrence in the Canadian state context. Indeed, numerous studies and inquiries note the alarming numbers of people dealing with mental health issues who are being set upon and killed by police forces at all levels and across the country. It is also true that these killings are taking place even as report after report calls for improved training for police in understanding and responding to people dealing with mental health issues, training in non-lethal interventions and suitable equipment, and most importantly alternatives to police in situations involving mental health emergencies. Still police are sent to intervene against people in distress and still people continue to be killed by those police.

On Monday, April 25, 2016, a 63-year-old man, identified as André Benjamin, was both tasered and fatally shot by Montréal police in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighborhood. The victim was shot by police around 8 AM during a police intervention a few blocks away from the city’s iconic Olympic Stadium. He was taken to hospital where he was declared deceased. According to police reports, the Montréal police were called to an apartment block at Ontario Street and Sicard Street regarding someone in apparent psychological distress. The call was reportedly made by a family member of the victim (CBC News 2016).

Poignantly, the police shooting of André Benjamin comes a mere six weeks after a coroner’s report was delivered in the police killing of Alain Magloire, another resident of the city who was killed by police while suffering mental distress. Magloire was shot and killed by police two years ago near the city’s bus station (CBC News 2016). The coroner’s report did recommend the use of stun guns rather than service firearms by police but also called for more extensive and better training for officers in appropriate dealing with people experiencing mental health issues.

Alain Magloire’s brother, Pierre Magloire, expressed sorrow that another man has been killed by the Montréal police force. He sees training rather than equipment as key. In his words: “It makes me sad that someone, again, has been shot. It’s like I’m always asking for more [training,]. It’s not because you have a stun gun that everything will go away and everything will be fine” (quoted in CBC News 2016). The killing of André Benjamin confirms this in the most brutal terms.

As is the situation in Quebec, where there is no independent investigations unit that would examine killings by police of civilians in the province, the case has been turned over to another force, in this case the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), the provincial police force. The SQ confirmed Monday afternoon that a taser was deployed by police during the encounter. The victim was also struck by at least one bullet fired by police.

The Québec government has been criticized by the province’s Human Rights Commission for long delays in instituting an independent agency to investigate shootings, serious injuries, and deaths of civilians that involve a police officer. While the provincial government has voted to create an independent investigations unit it is yet to be operational three years after the vote was recorded (CBC News 2016).

Montréal police have a rather infamous history of lethal force. Annual day against police brutality events, held on March 15 each year, have origins in protests against the force. The protests were initiated in 1997 by the Coalition Opposed to Police Brutality and often involve direct action.

 

Further Reading

CBC News. 2016. “Man, 63, Dies after Being Shot by Montreal Police in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.” CBC News. April 25. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/montreal-police-shooting-1.3551475


RCMP Kill Mother and Son in Northern BC (April 21, 2016)

RCMP in Northern British Columbia shot and killed a mother and her son in an encounter in the early afternoon of Thursday, April 21, 2016. Family members of the victims have identified the deceased as Shirley Williams, 77, and son Jôvan Williams, 39. The mother and her son were confronted by police at the mother’s home in the small village of Granisle on Babine Lake.

RCMP reported having been called to a “neighbour dispute involving a handgun” at around 12:30 PM local time on Thursday (quoted in CBC News 2016a). Arriving at the home about 1:22 PM they surrounded the home and report attempting to make contact with the residents. Police report that one person exited the home and sometime thereafter shots were fired at approximately 2:50. A second person then reportedly exited the home with shots being fired once more. Paramedics were reported to be waiting nearby and the two victims were pronounced dead at the scene. Anne Williams, a teacher and twenty-year resident of Granisle who was friends with Shirley Williams, reported that she saw five police cars at the shooting scene as well as officers with rifles (CBC News 2016b).

Jôvan Williams was a carpenter who had also worked in security with the Lake Babine First Nation. His aunt, June Williams, reported that he had recently left the security guard job with the Lake Babine Nation to live with and help his mother (CBC News 2016b). Mother and son were longtime residents of the village of Granisle. Residents reported seeing the pair often out together around town. Strangely the local director for the regional district, Tom Liversidge, jumped to conclusions publicly about the shooting suggesting a police friendly take. Without explaining further or providing evidence he suggested: “It’s really a shocking thing. I know everybody is very surprised. Nobody expected that this lady or her son were violent” (quoted in CBC News 2016a).

The incident is presently under investigation by the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) the police oversight agency in British Columbia responsible for investigating instances of civilian harm or death involving police officers. Eight Independent Investigations Office investigators have been sent to the village to carry out the investigation. The sheer volume of such instances in the province over the last few years has contributed to a serious backlog of IIO investigations and growing frustration over the lack of answers in several killings by police over that time span.

A stricken June Williams was left to reflect: “My niece has no more mom and no more brother now. They were decent people, they were not troublemakers” (quoted in CBC News 2016b).

 

Further Reading

CBC News. 2016a. “Police-Involved Shooting Kills 2 in Northern B.C. Village of Granisle.” CBC News. April 21. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/police-incident-shooting-granisle-1.3547972

CBC News. 2016b. “Shirley Williams, 77, and Son Jovan Williams, 39, Confirmed as Victims in Police-Involved Shooting.” CBC News. April 22. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/shirley-williams-77-and-son-jovan-williams-39-confirmed-as-victims-in-police-involved-shooting-1.3548521


“Comply or Die” Policing: Unanswered Questions in the Police Killing of Myles Gray

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).

 

Further Reading

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


Killing Independence: Active Officers and the Independent Investigations Unit in Manitoba

Despite the ongoing and consistently stated desires of civilian populations for independent civilian oversight of police forces in the Canadian context it is still the case that independent oversight or investigations units have not been established in all provinces. Even more though in those provinces in which supposedly independent investigations units have been established there are very real and serious concerns about the lack of actual independence of these units from police agencies. This includes cases of the outright presence of police officers as members of these units or the use of police to deliver compulsory training to unit members.

The Independent Investigation Unit in Manitoba (IIU) was only founded in 2011. Yet it has taken very little time for the unit to succumb to problems of involvement of police and concerns over lack of transparency that have quickly overtaken other units in Canada. On April 15, 2016, it was announced that a key civilian member of the Manitoba Police Commission has quit the position over concerns that police officers are investigating themselves (CBC News 2016).

Robert Taman was appointed to the nine-person commission in 2011 but has resigned due to what he calls a “difference of opinion” regarding police involvement in the IIU. In resigning his position Taman reported that an active member of the Winnipeg Police Service joined the Independent Investigation Unit in April and as a result he came to the conclusion that he must quit his position. The conflict of interest and lack of independence and integrity this implies for investigations of officers seem rather straightforward and clear. In Taman’s words:

“To have them actually conduct an investigation against one of their former brothers in a crime situation, I think they would have a difficult time separating themselves in the situation, and I just feel it should be an outside source. It has to be done a certain way. And I don’t think anything has gone awry; I think everybody’s trying hard to put together something that’s going to work. I just think sometimes things aren’t done quite the way they should be done, because it doesn’t quite fit within the government parameters.” (quoted in CBC News 2016)

This is a particularly poignant case of independence being invalidated by the presence of a police officer given that the IIU in Manitoba was created as one of the recommendations following from an inquiry into the police killing of Robert Taman’s wife in 2005. Taman has been a tireless advocate for accountability and integrity in policing, and civilian oversight, since his wife, Crystal, was killed in a crash involving an off-duty Winnipeg police officer (CBC News 2016).

Crystal Taman, a 40-year-old mother of three, was killed when her car, which had stopped at a traffic light, was struck by a pickup truck driven by off-duty Winnipeg police officer 31-year-old Derek Harveymordenzenk (also known as Derek Harvey-Zenk). Harveymordenzenk had spent that evening partying with colleagues. As a result of his killing Taman he received only a two-year conditional sentence. This after pleading guilty to dangerous driving causing death. There was great public outcry over the light sentence given Harveymordenzenk. This led to a provincial inquiry that concluded with recommendations for what were to be substantial structural changes to the practice of policing in Manitoba.

The provincial inquiry examined what was a dubious police investigation into the crash and made recommendations including the establishment of a police commission and independent investigation unit. Members of the Manitoba Police Commission are appointed by the provincial government which has raised some questions of political interference, favoritism, or coercion. It is the commission that assigns civilian monitors to investigations conducted by the Independent Investigation Unit in cases in which a civilian is killed or suffers serious injury in incidents involving police officers (CBC News 2016).

At the time of formation of the Manitoba Police Commission in 2011, then provincial Attorney General Andrew Swan had much to say about civilian input and oversight and accountability measures regarding police. In his words at the time:

“This diverse group of men and women will play a fundamental part in providing a new era of civilian input, governance, transparency and accountability in the delivery of policing services in Manitoba. We’re taking the next step in replacing outdated legislation with the new Police Services Act, ensuring that our police officers are supported with a modern act and that citizens can play a crucial role in overseeing the delivery of policing services well into the future.” (quoted in CBC News 2011)

A new Police Services Act was drafted following the recommendations of the Taman Inquiry, and the appointment of the Manitoba Police Commission was viewed as the first crucial step in implementing the Police Services Act. Since its founding the commission has been tasked with providing advice on required policing standards including matters of police training and equipment. The commission also helps to train the local police boards that were established in areas operating their own police services. Local police boards trained by the commission are given the power to hire the police chief, propose and administer police budgets, as well as setting the overall direction and operation of its police service (CBC News 2011).

In addition it is the commission that was charged with recruiting and training the roster of people who were supposed to monitor investigations of police incidents involving harm as well as allegations against police officers by the IIU. This roster was supposed to be composed of civilians as Attorney General Swan stated in his announcement of the first commission.

Clearly the independent character of the IIU in Manitoba has been formally ended. This is a fate that took little time in arriving. It is by no means the exception in the Canadian state context. Indeed it is the (all too predictable) rule. The blue wall of silence is not relinquished readily or easily (or at all) by police in Canada.

 

Further Reading

CBC News. 2011. “Police Commission Board Announced.” CBC News. February 11. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/police-commission-board-announced-1.997808

CBC News. 2016. “Robert Taman Quits Manitoba Police Commission Over IIU Concerns.” April 15. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/robert-taman-manitoba-police-commission-1.3538005


Indigenous People Killed by Cops: The Police Killing of Sandy Tarzan Michel (April 6, 2016)

Police violence against indigenous people and communities remains the ongoing practice of settler colonialism within the Canadian state context. This includes lethal force. Yet systemic racism and colonialism are rarely addressed in investigations of police violence. Many officers are oblivious to the colonial histories of their own institutions. Many have no understanding of colonialism at all.

On Wednesday, April 6, 2016, Sandy Tarzan Michel, 25, was shot by police on a small Algonquin reserve in Lac-Simon in Abitibi-Témiscamingue about 500 kilometres northwest of Montréal. Shockingly, reports suggest the young man was first struck by a police cruiser and later shot several times by police. According to provincial police Sgt. Benoit Coutu, officers from the Lac-Simon force were responding to reports of a man allegedly brandishing a knife as he was walking in public (Canadian Press 2016).

Sadly Sandy Tarzan Michel is not the first member of his family to be killed by police. In January 2009 his brother, Johnny Junior Michel Dumont, only 19, was shot and killed by police in Lac-Simon. Strangely police also said that Dumont was holding a knife at the time they killed him.

The community, which has been subjected to police violence, confronted local police and tried to stop the entry of provincial police, the Sûreté du Québec, who were called to assist the local force. Residents apparently blocked the entrance of police vehicles. Three people were arrested by the police at the scene.

SQ spokesperson Sergeant Daniel Thibodeau used these words to describe the situation: “It’s a high emotion type of situation that this community is not used to dealing with … Incidents from the past have carried over so there’s a bit of a build of tension” (quoted in Shingler 2016). It is not likely that the “incidents from the past” referred to be Thibodeau include ongoing practices of systemic racism and colonialism.

Unlike in other provinces, including Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario, there is no independent unit to investigate incidents in which police officers injure or kill civilians. Instead another police force is asked to investigate in such cases. In response to the killing of Sandy Tarzan Michel, Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux initially tasked provincial police with conducting the investigation into the situation resulting in this killing. This was surprising given that members of the Lac-Simon force had been n communication with provincial police the evening of the killing and had come to the assistance of the local force. The Sûreté du Québec had sent a dozen officers to lend a hand to the local force (CBC News 2016). Responsibility for the investigation was finally moved to the Montréal police force. In any event few would suspect a thorough and critical review into the case by any fellow force.

 

Community Not Cops

Provincial police have been given supervision of the territory as the investigations move forward. Incredibly the SQ asked members of the press to stay away from Lac-Simon while they investigate (CBC News 2016). Around 1,200 people live in the town.

The police officers’ association in Lac-Simon has taken advantage of the killings to call for still more policing resources in the area and has blamed what they call a “public security crisis” in the community. Yet community members refer instead to a public health crisis and speak to issues of health, economic inequality, and harm reduction.

Michel’s family has relied on the support and care of people in the small community after having two loved ones taken from them by police in strikingly similar fashion. They report that many have reached out to contact and support the family.

According to Judith Brazeau, the partner of Michel’s father: “We are living with our pain. We help each other a lot. If someone is hurting, there is always someone there” (quoted in Northcott and Laframboise 2016).

In a public show of support for the family and anger at the police violence inflicted on their community, around 100 people marched Friday afternoon, April 8, to protest the circumstances surrounding Michel’s killing by police.

 

Further Reading

Canadian Press. 2016. “Man Dies after Being Shot by Police on Algonquin Reserve in Quebec.” Metro. April 7. http://www.metronews.ca/news/canada/2016/04/07/man-shot-by-police-during-intervention-in-northern-quebec-community-dies.html

CBC News. 2016. “Lac-Simon Police Officer Fatally Shoots Man.” CBC News. April 6. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/lac-simon-shot-dead-1.3524409

Northcott, Alison and Kalina Laframboise. 2016. “Lac-Simon Victim’s Brother Was Also Fatally Shot by Police.” CBC News. April 8. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/lac-simon-police-death-shooting-brothers-1.3526783

Shingler, Benjamin. 2016. “Tensions High in Lac-Simon after Fatal Police Shooting.” CBC News. April 7. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/lac-simon-surete-du-quebec-sandy-tarzan-michel-1.3524635


Human Rights, Mental Illness, and Killings by Cops: The Beau Baker Shooting

It happens far too often in Canada. A person experiences emotional distress or mental health issues. Someone observing contacts authorities. Rather than a health care worker, police are sent to the scene. Instead of acting in a helpful caring way, they quickly resort to orders and violence. And someone who could and should be supported ends up dead. Police who kill people under such circumstances are almost never held accountable by the criminal justice system. Now families may be beginning to turn attention to the violation of human rights that occurs when someone suffering mental illness is treated with violence because they are suffering mental illness or distress.

On April 2, 2015, Waterloo Regional police in Kitchener, Ontario shot Beau Baker seven times, killing him. At the time police engaged him Baker was suffering through a mental health crisis. Police were aware of this but still did nothing to calm him or deescalate or involve mental health care workers. Rather they took the typical authoritarian command approach that has led to numerous documented injuries and deaths at the hands of police in Canada. As family lawyer Davin Charney suggests: “That type of command (approach) doesn’t work for people in a mental crisis” (quoted in Sher 2016).

 

Mental Health and Human Rights Violations by Police

Police in Canada have a dubious history of killing people experiencing mental health crises. The too often employed response is one of confrontation, order, escalation, and, finally, force, often times lethal. Approaches that acknowledge distress and seek communicative alternatives are rarely used. And outcomes are predictably deadly. As Charney notes: “It’s playing out across the country again and again. Beau did not deserve to die” (quoted in Sher 2016). It seems to have become too easy for police to quickly resort to lethal force in such cases. With impunity.

Beau Baker’s mental illness now forms a basis for a lawsuit claiming that police discriminated against him in a way that violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Ontario Human Rights Code. On April 4, 2016, the family and estate of Beau Baker filed a six million dollar lawsuit claiming that the young man was killed by Waterloo Regional police without provocation and in violation of his rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The lawsuit further charges that the police knew that Baker was mentally ill when they encountered him and then tried to cover up their misdeed. The lawsuit also names Waterloo Regional police Chief Brian Larkin and the police services board as defendants.

The lawsuit claims that the 20-year-old victim was standing with his arms above his head, holding a beer in one hand and a knife in the other, when one of two police officers who had guns pointed at him fired seven times, with one bullet severing his aorta, killing him. According to the lawsuit’s statement of claim: “(Beau) was not moving towards either officer. After he was shot, Beau fell to the ground in the exact same spot that he had been standing when the first officer had arrived” (quoted in Sher 2016). This is supported by eyewitness testimony.

 

Not So Special Investigations

In response to notice of the lawsuit, Waterloo Regional police Staff Sgt. Mike Haffner issued a statement: “Any death in our community is tragic. With the loss by the Baker family, they have decided to take legal action against the service. It would be inappropriate for the service to comment as this process has just commenced” (quoted in Sher 2016).

As is typically the case in the Canadian context details of the killing, including the names of officers involved have not been revealed to the family or the public. This is an issue that deeply troubles critics as well as advocates for public transparency and openness in government and public institutions. Transparency and openness are by no means hallmarks of policing in Canada. Indeed secrecy, protections, and the blue wall of silence (reinforced by public agencies like the SIU) are the order of the day. In this the often self-congratulatory Canadian systems could learn from examples in the United States in which officers are named publicly, often fairly soon after an incident of police violence.

The Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the provincial agency that investigates cases of police encounters that involve civilian injury or death, had assigned eight investigators to probe the shooting. It is by now well established, through reviews and reports released by the provincial ombudsperson, that police obstruct, deceive, and lie to the SIU. The lawsuit in this case claims that officers did not provide truthful statements to the SIU investigators. According to the lawsuit: “The officers made false and self-serving statements to the SIU with the purpose of avoiding criminal liability. The [officers] intentionally misled the SIU and corrupted the investigation into the death of Beau” (quoted in Sher 2016).

The SIU concluded that the officer who fired the shots and killed Baker was justified in doing so. This conclusion was based on the reports of officers. In what can only be described as a perverse, even sadistic, assessment, the SIU went so far as to claim that the officer who killed Baker was justified in firing seven shots because the young victim did not fall until the last shot was fired.

 

Alternative Views

Yet the perspectives and testimony of witnesses suggest something other than the SIU sanctioned version of events. Witness Muhammad Zafar, 46, reported seeing the shooting from his cousin’s apartment across the street. In his view: “There was a guy with a knife in front of the building. It looked like a kitchen knife. He was saying something and police were also saying something” (quoted in Carruthers 2015a).

Another witness Dan Mazurek said he saw the shooting from the vantage point of his fourth-floor balcony. He reported the killing as follows: “A lady who lived in the apartment, who was a friend of the guy who got (shot), she was yelling and crying to the cop to not shoot him. I saw the cop with his gun drawn and this guy sitting on the ground” (quoted in Carruthers 2015a). According to Mazurek, he heard five gunshots from the officer, who was standing about three to 4 1/2 meters from the victim.

Notably, Mazurek reported that Baker was never close to the officer. He also noted that there was no attempt by police at de-escalation and the shooting came very early into the encounter. In Mazurek’s view: “The kid was nowhere near him. I did not see any [de-escalation] and within two seconds onto the balcony, the cop fired off five shots. There was another female cop behind her door of the police car” (quoted in Carruthers 2015a).

Witnesses and friends alike cannot fathom why police responded with lethal force. Those questions remain. Beau Baker’s friend Crystal Pettigrew remembered: “He’s not a violent person and he would never hurt anyone. I think everybody just wants real answers. They didn’t have to kill him” (quoted in Carruthers 2015b)

Another friend Gracelynn Fortin, 16, spoke with Baker an hour before he was killed by Waterloo police. She echoes the view of others that her friend was kind and unthreatening. In her view: “Beau wouldn’t dare try and hurt someone. He was not a violent person. He was probably the most kind, caring person you could ever meet” (quoted in Carruthers 2015b). She believes that if anything he was raising a “cry for help” the night he was killed (Carruthers 2015b).

 

Conclusion

While police only ever seem to see a threat, or a target, people who knew Baker recall a loving, kind artist. Indeed, according to family Beau Baker had plans to be a tattoo artist and was trying to put together the equipment to start his career. It was something at which he was said to be quite talented.

His mother, Jackie Baker, remembers a loving son. In her words: “Beau was one of the most thoughtful and loving people I have ever met. Since he was a young boy he made gifts for people. He bought me a rose for one of my birthdays and I still have the petals” (quoted in Sher 2016). She suggests that her son’s battles with anxiety worsened following the death in 2011 of a grandmother who was his best friend. This led to a turn to smoking pot and eventually drinking. Jackie Baker has a chilling recollection of the last time she spent and her son spent together:

“The day before he was taken from his two brothers and myself I had met him at the doctor’s office to get a new prescription for his medication. I gave him a new shirt in an army green colour. We parted ways at the bus stop and I gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek and told him I love him. As I walked away I kept looking back for some reason.” (quoted in Sher 2016)

Her son is among the victims of people dealing with mental health issues who are killed by police in Canada. It is a long and troubling list. One that shows have inappropriate, and unacceptable, it is to have police intervening in cases of mental stress and illness.

 

Further Reading

Carruthers, Dale. 2015a. “Special Investigations Unit Probing Deadly Kitchener Shooting.” London Free Press. April 6. http://www.lfpress.com/2015/04/03/special-investigations-unit-probing-deadly-kitchener-shooting

Carruthers, Dale. 2015b. “Friends of Man Fatally Shot by Police in Kitchener Question Use of Deadly Force.” London Free Press. April 6. http://www.lfpress.com/2015/04/05/beau-baker-was-a-former-londoner-who-was-killed-in-an-encounter-with-waterloo-regional-police-last-week

Sher, Jonathan. 2016. “Family of Ex-Londoner Sues Police over Fatal Shooting.” London Free Press. April 4. http://www.lfpress.com/2016/04/04/family-of-ex-londoner-sues-police-over-fatal-shooting


Also Kill the Messenger: Police Attacks on Whistleblowers

Public perceptions of whistleblowers have evolved over recent decades to a point in which whistleblowers are viewed as important, even crucial, contributors to democratic practice as well as key players in developing safe, healthy, and just workplaces, communities, and societies. This has been underlined by the significant role of workplace whistleblowing around issues of health, safety, and corporate criminality as well as by the role of public whistleblowing such as the cases of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

One sector within twenty-first century society in the Canadian context that takes a decidedly reactionary and regressive approach to whistleblowers and whistleblowing is, not surprisingly, policing. In this police are similar to other sectors of the state. Indeed, policing at the highest levels, views secrecy, obfuscation, non-transparency, and outright distortion as its natural, and proper, order of things. This has not changed with public demands for openness or with the development of supposedly independent investigations units to deliver some modicum of public oversight and transparency.

So it may not be at all surprising, but still comes as rather repulsive, that the chief of the Calgary police and ranking members of the Calgary Police Association are openly condemning, even threatening, officers who speak with reporters without authorization of their bosses. Calgary police Chief Roger Chaffin goes so far as to suggest that he is working to “root out” officers who provide information to media confidentially. In his words: “That’s part of my quest. I want to find out who” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

This active concern with rooting out truth tellers within the force comes as someone revealed confidentially to CBC News that the officer involved in the fatal shooting of David McQueen in January 2016 was, at the time he killed McQueen, already under an open investigation for killing another man, Anthony Heffernan, less than a year before. Rather than expressing concern over this grim fact and seeking to do something about it, the chief has made it his mission to go after, not the killer cop, but whoever made it known that he was a multiple killer.

 

Love it or Leave It: Police Associations against Whistleblowers

If police chiefs are aggressive in their desire to root out whistleblowers, police associations are downright extremist. This is the case with the force in Calgary. Paul Wozney, a director with the police association and the editor of the association magazine published a vitriolic defense of the chief’s pursuit of whistleblowers. His editorial supports Chief Chaffin’s decision to send a “strongly worded” memo warning officers that they face stiff consequences for leaking information to the media (Fletcher 2016).

Wozney is fairly spitting blood when he rages in his article: “Don’t you think that the member you blabbed about, who responded to two extremely high risk calls and had to make split second decisions in the interests of their own personal safety and the safety of the community, has a right to feel safe with their own organization?” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

He continues more forcefully: “It disgusts me that one of our own members (sworn or civilian) would choose to make such a selfish decision” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

The us-versus-them mentality that is a staple of policing, and contributes to police violence against civilians is on full, brutal display in Wozney’s self-righteous rant: “To be blunt, we have enough butt-holes in the media, the community, and on the defense-side of the bar taking shots at us. We don’t need our own members taking shots at each other in our own magazine” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

Wozney further makes clear that only compliant “yes sir” voices will be allowed in the association’s magazine. No room for conscientious objectors, dissenters, or simple truth seekers.

He takes the authoritarian approach that no criticism can be offered and only acceptance of the status quo is permitted. This is the “my way or the highway,” “love it or leave it,” “my country right or wrong” psychology that underlies, and reinforces, authoritarian institutions like the police. In his words: “If you are some sort of unhappy employee, then I suggest you leave the organization or join the fire department” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

Stunningly, officer Wozney cannot imagine any reason why an officer would want to provide information about police wrongdoing to the media. Especially since “the media sure doesn’t pay for this information” (quoted in Fletcher 2016). Why else would a cop do the right thing except for pay?

While Wozney refuses to speak with media about the aggressive approach taken in his magazine, Police Association president Howard Burns stands by the publication and its editor. In his view: “I don’t necessarily disagree with the article. You have to appreciate that this magazine is meant for the 2,100 members of the Calgary Police Association. So, it’s not really meant for public distribution, although it’s fine for it to be in the public eye” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

The police association notes that members who provide information to the media without authorization could be disciplined and even face termination. So much for respect for whistleblowing. They prefer officers go through authorized channels such as the Calgary Police Services media relations wing or through the union.

Association head Burns notes that the leak in the Heffernan case will not even compromise the investigation since it is concluded. He admits:

“I think in that particular case, that investigation, my understanding is it’s been concluded and is before the Crown in Edmonton. So I don’t think it’s going to interfere but it certainly can be confusing for the public when they hear mixed messages and they start to hear about confidential sources. It’s probably not the appropriate way to do business” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

 

Dubious Assumptions

Police officials, both in the association and in management operate under a dubious assumption that secrecy does not damage their reputation. They seem oblivious to the damage done by ongoing practiced secrecy. At the same time they replay another of their famous myths, this one that openness and forthright reporting puts officers in danger (playing into another myth that everyday policing is particularly dangerous). The Calgary chief suggests: “When it gets released without proper attention to details and policy, it puts people at risk. It puts the reputation of policing at risk, and it can really harm the work we do and the members and the organization” (quoted in Fletcher 2016). The key part of this attempt at dissembling is the note that truthfulness really puts the reputation of police at risk. And indeed openness, honesty, and transparency about policing would certainly lead many civilians to more fully question the institution—a necessary and justified outcome.

While being controlling and secretive they also manage to convince themselves that they are open. According to Calgary’s chief: “We do have a very open policy and a very transparent way to talk to media around here, generally speaking. But when it involves operational issues or personnel discipline issues that are within the organization, there are things that we want to have some controls over” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

Incredibly, observers suggest that the Calgary force is more open, One can only imagine the shadow activities of previous regimes if that is in fact true.

 

For the Families

Whatever the police chief and the police association might prefer, the public and the family of Anthony Heffernan are quite thankful to whoever leaked the information about the police killer of Heffernan and David McQueen.

Victim Anthony Heffernan’s father Patrick Heffernan, argues for greater police openness and accountability and is rather shocked by the tone of the police association’s defense of secrecy. In his view: “The police, they should be open. The public should know what’s happening. This notion that they are to protect each other … rather than necessarily having the truth out … I think that’s totally wrong” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

It is telling that the Heffernan family, let alone the public, still has not been informed of the names of the officers responsible for killing their son. In the view of the family the investigation into their son’s killing by police has lacked transparency throughout.

Anthony Heffernan’s brother, Grant Heffernan, reported that the family only learned that the officer who shot and killed his brother was also involved in the January 25 killing of Dave McQueen through the CBC News report and reporter Meaghan Grant. Grant Heffernan’s assessment of the police interaction with the family is stark: “They basically lied to us” (quoted in Khandaker 2016).

According to Grant Heffernan the whistleblowing was crucial and necessary. In his words: “That is the only way we knew, and if a source in the Calgary police wants to talk to the media, they should be able to do that” (quoted in Khandaker 2016). This seems like a straightforward position, one that the public is supportive of.

The great significance of whistleblowing for the families of victims of police killings is clear and unequivocal. According to Grant Heffernan: “We want to know this information. We have been in the dark with a lot of what’s been going on with the investigation. There’s a lot of things we don’t know about and the Calgary police won’t tell us. To us, this was important information” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

Grant Heffernan was left incredulous and repulsed by the responses of the chief and the police association. He reported: “They basically said there’s going to be a witch hunt for the guy who came out to the reporter. We’re very grateful this guy did come out and had the courage to stand up for us” (quoted in Khandaker 2016).

Reading Wozney’s article was a shock. In Haffernan’s view: “What kind of language is that if you’re in charge? How can you use that kind of language in a respectable position? It’s unbelievable to me” (quoted in Khandaker 2016).

The Heffernan family is at this point hopeful that a murder charge, almost unheard of in cases of police killings of civilians in Canada will be laid against the as yet unnamed officer.

In the Canadian state context, federal law protects whistleblowers who report illegal or troubling behavior, but only in situations in which they report the case of wrongdoing to a state law enforcement agency. Workplace protection is not extended to those who provide whistleblowing information to media. Media leaks have indeed resulted in criminal investigations and prosecution against both journalists and whistleblowers in the Canadian context (Khandaker 2016).

 

Further Reading

Fletcher, Robson. 2016. “Calgary Police Chief on ‘Quest’ to Root Out Confidential Media Sources from His Ranks.” CBC News. March 31. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/calgary-police-media-sources-anthony-heffernan-1.3515573

Khandaker, Tamara. 2016. “Canadian Police Chief Warns His Cops to Stop Snitching to the Press.” Vice News. April 1. https://news.vice.com/article/canadian-police-chief-warns-his-cops-to-stop-snitching-to-the-press