The secrecy that surrounds information about officers involved in the deaths of civilians, and the fact that officers who kill people are not readily named in the Canadian context, extends to information about the circumstances of police killings of civilians.
Details about police killings of civilians typically only emerge in cases in which charges are brought and which end up in court, since court proceedings are public in Canada, or in certain cases that are reviewed by provincial oversight bodies, where they exist, or in coroners’ inquiries. In cases in which other police forces investigate their fellow police information is not forthcoming. Even in cases that are reviewed by oversight agencies or coroners’ inquiries details can be obscure or conflicting. Yet having some access to witness accounts or evidence and cross examination from lawyers of victims’ families can provide some of the only opportunities for the public to have any insights into the horrible situations faced by victims in their final moments or in events that would lead to their deaths subsequently.
The transcripts of responses to investigators offer some too little seen insights into police encounters with people experiencing mental health crises and show, in a startling and awful way, how quickly police can escalate situations and how single minded (and unforgiving) they are in seeking compliance from people who are clearly distraught, even confused.
Troubling Encounters: The Police Killing of Rhett Mutch
Details released at the conclusion of an Independent Investigations Office (IIO) investigation into the shooting and killing of 20-year-old Rhett Mutch by a Vitoria Police Department officer show the deeply disturbing actions undertaken by police in a situation in which a young man experiencing mental health issues is confronted by officers set on achieving compliance. The following accounts are from that IIO report as reported in Petrescu (2016).
Rhett Mutch was shot and killed by police on the morning of November 1, 2014, in his mother’s home. She had called 911 at 10:51 AM after her son had broken into her home. The two had been texting for some time before the son entered his mother’s house. At the time he was under a court order not to contact her or visit her house. Marney Mutch informed the 911 dispatcher of this. In the kitchen Rhett Mutch took a steak knife with a serrated edge and held it to his stomach (Petrescu 2016).
Lowering the knife Rhett Mutch moved into the living room and sat down on a couch. The 911 dispatcher informed Marney Mutch that police had arrived and told her to leave the house. She refused to leave her son and informed that operator that he was now pointing the knife at the floor and she believed that her son would not harm her (Petrescu 2016).
Within four minutes of the initial call to 911 two Victoria police officers arrived at Marney Mutch’s house. Others were dispatched and on their way. The situation was described by dispatcher to officers as involving a man with a knife to his throat. A supervisor reportedly suggested the officers should “try and probe, use cover, initiate dialogue” (Petrescu 2016). It seems that the officer did not take this approach in engaging Rhett Mutch.
When Marney Mutch opened the door to meet police she was startled to see the officers approaching her front door with a large gun. She asked: “Whoa. What is that for?” (quoted in Petrescu 2016). The ensuing conversation unfolded as follows according to the investigation report.
The officer upon entering responded: “He’s armed.”
Mutch clarified: “He’s got a kitchen knife and he’s not going to hurt anybody with it.”
The officer asserted their need to protect her and informed her that they had a beanbag gun.
Mutch expressed that she did not fear her son: “He’s not going to hurt me. He’s not going to hurt anybody.”
Speaking of the gun wielded by police Marney Mutch further explained to investigators: “So like, I wanted him to go away with it. He didn’t. It was frightening. It was only going to scare the hell out of him … He had tears in his eyes.”
The officer insisted that she not stay in the house. Two more officers entered the house as Marney Mutch exited. She noticed one of the officers carrying a weapon that she described as looking like a bazooka. She again expressed her concerns: “This is really overkill.” Instead of taking her advice or consulting her further Marney Mutch was made to sit inside a police car away from her son.
There was a sense that the number of officers in his immediate space frightened or agitated Mutch. Officers suggested a change in his demeanor at their presence. A neighbor is recorded in the report saying he heard police repeatedly shouting at the young man and this could be heard from outside the house.
For their part the officers involved told investigators that they were not sure if anyone else was in the house at the time of the encounter. They suggested this ratcheted up their sense of urgency and concern that someone else could be harmed. The presence or not of others, however, could have been determined by asking Marney Mutch. In any event, the IIO noted that this was a serious communication failure by the officers involved.
At 11:02 AM an officer inside the house with a beanbag gun fired at Mutch hitting him in the thigh but apparently not knocking him down (Petrescu 2016). Officers stated that they felt confined with too little room to move quickly or to retreat. This was another serious failing of the police response. Another officer fired hitting Mutch in the neck causing the victim to bleed severely. Paramedics would arrive five minutes later but there were no signs of life and Rhett Mutch was pronounced dead at 11:29 AM.
The IIO cleared the police officer who killed Mutch. Use of force was declared to be justified, the typical ruling from oversight bodies in Canada. In its statement the office concluded:
“There is no evidence to support that the involved officers had any malice against, or motivation to do harm to, the affected person or use any force against him other than what was reasonably necessary to take him into lawful custody” (quoted in Petrescu 2016)
The IIO also concluded that the Victoria Police Department was not criminally negligent in their fateful decision to confront Rhett Mutch rather than withdrawing from the house to a safer barricade position from which they, or a mental healthcare person, could negotiate.
Once again concerns were raised about the timeframe of the IIO investigation. It took a rather tardy 19 months to complete, an issue that IIO critics note has become standard for the unit.
IIO Chair Marten Youseff reported that the events surrounding the killing of Rhett Mutch raised serious questions for officers regarding the actions of the Victoria Police Department. According to the report: “Unfortunately, significant communication failures led to different perspectives amongst different officers as to the need to immediately confront the affected person” (quoted in Petrescu 2016). Yet there is no explanation for the confusion on this given that Marney Mutch had spoken of the lack of immediate (or looming) threat both to the 911 dispatcher and to the officers at the scene. And police knew that she was inside a police vehicle and thus facing no threat at all at the time police entered the house.
The IIO report concludes: “Given the totality of the circumstances, there are significant questions that need to be asked as to why the officers were inside the residence at all, at the moment the shots were fired” (quoted in Lupick 2016).
Of particular concern for investigators was the fact that the officers involved did not know who was in the house when they entered. This despite the obvious, acknowledged, presence of the mother and the opportunity to speak with her (as at least one officer did). The officer who shot Mutch claimed that he would have proceeded differently, setting up an armed barricade and not entering the house, if he had been aware that no one else was inside or that Mutch was suicidal (Petrescu 2016). The number of officers in a tight space was said to limit their options. Neither pepper spray nor baton were deemed viable in that context.
Despite the findings of the investigation and the description of what happened by Marney Mutch the Victoria Police Department continued to portray officers as trying to de-escalate the situation. In a statement released following the IIO report, Victoria police chief Del Manak stated:
“In addition to the grief and sorrow this has caused the family, this incident has had a profound effect on the officers who were involved. Despite their training, experience, the action plan they developed for this dynamic situation, and their attempts to de-escalate the situation, this incident ended in tragedy.” (quoted in Petrescu 2016)
Yet this was a tragedy that need not have occurred.
Victoria police were presented with the IIO report and insisted they will work with the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner to examine departmental protocols. In a statement they claim: “we remain committed to continual assessment of our practices. This is especially important given the steadily increasing number of calls from the public requesting that our officers attend to people experiencing some form of crisis” (quoted in Petrescu 2016). Yet in case after case in the Canadian context, regardless of jurisdiction police are responding to people experiencing crisis with a “comply or die” focus, aggression, violence, and ultimately lethal force.
And when police act in these encounters they tend to act aggressively and quickly with no sense of attempts at de-escalation or communication. According to the IIO report, only between five and six minutes passed between the time at which Victoria police officers made contact with Mutch and the discharge of a firearm. As Lupick notes, that is significantly longer than is often the case in other police shootings in British Columbia. Lupick notes that there is a pattern in fatal encounters involving police and civilians in the province. It is, in fact, common for police to have fired their weapons within the first few minutes of contact with someone experiencing mental health issues or personal crisis, often discharging weapons within the first 60 seconds of contact (Lupick 2016). Clearly this shows that virtually no efforts are made a de-escalation or discussion.
Following the release of the IIO investigation report Marney Mutch told reporters that in her view it was the actions of police and their hard response that led to an intensification of her son’s behavior. In particular she noted the presence of large, ominous looking, weapons, the number of officers confronting her son, five, and the fact that they cornered her son in a single room. In her view: “They created the situation that led to my son being shot” (quoted in Petrescu 2016).
She believes that her son Rhett did not want to die and would not have killed himself and she is confident that she was never in danger from her son. In her words: “There was nothing aggressive about him” (quoted in Petrescu 2016). In the view of Marney Mutch, and indeed of many commentators and critics, it is the wrong approach to aggressively confront someone, particularly with weapons, experiencing a mental health crisis (Petrescu 2016). She has added her voice to the call from others for improved training for police in dealing with people experiencing mental health emergencies.
Lupick, Travis. 2016. “Investigators Clear B.C. Police of another Fatal Shooting but Ask Why Officers Allowed Situation to Escalate.” Georgia Straight. June 8. http://www.straight.com/news/713201/investigators-clear-bc-police-another-fatal-shooting-ask-why-officers-allowed-situation
Petrescu, Sarah. 2016. “Victoria Police Found to Have Used Reasonable Force in Fatal 2014 Shooting, but Mom Says They Escalated Situation.” The Province. June 8. http://www.theprovince.com/news/report+finds+victoria+police+used+reasonable+force+fatal/11972787/story.html