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.
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).
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.
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