In the Canadian context too little attention is given to deaths that occur in police custody. Little is revealed about the circumstances of the deaths and too many questions are left unanswered. This is particularly the case in deaths of Indigenous people in police custody in Canada, occurrences which have been too frequent and too frequently passed over by media and academics alike.
Serious questions remain to be answered regarding the in custody death of Jocelyn Nynah Marsha George (18), a member of the Ahousaht and Hesquiaht First Nations, on the evening of June 24, 2016. The young Indigenous woman died while being held by the RCMP in Port Alberni. She had been arrested on June 23 for uncertain reasons. The BC Coroners Service reported that George was taken to Westcoast General Hospital the next morning “in need of medical attention” of an undisclosed nature. She was then taken by air ambulance to Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital and died there on the evening of June 24. The Independent Investigations Office (IIO), which investigates all incidents of violence by police against civilians in British Columbia, are investigating.
Jocelyn George’s family members want to know why their loved one was left alone in the cell by RCMP and for how long. They also want to know if or when officers checked on her while she was being held. They would also like to see any video footage from the detachment (Zussman 2016b).
The family reports that Jocelyn George was taken into custody for a “disturbance” and was left alone in her cell. This raises real questions about police interactions with indigenous people, particularly indigenous youth. It is well documented that Indigenous people are responded to more punitively by police and are detained disproportionately to non-Natives in Canada (see Monchalin 2016). That Jocelyn George was taken into custody over a disturbance should raise flags about issues of police discretion, possible racism or profiling, and punitive policing.
Doctors at the hospital stated that they found a mix of drugs and alcohol in the teenager’s system which may have damaged internal organs. There is no sense yet why the police did not provide care and attention to someone who may have been experiencing distressed health. The family wants the IIO investigation to place focus on the ways in which police officers treat people dealing with addictions and health issues while in custody (Zussman 2016b). She apparently needed help but did not receive it.
George’s uncle Linus Lucas notes the ongoing impact of state violence and the residential school system on the family. These are the histories of Canadian colonialism and genocide that have devastated Indigenous communities and families and in which the RCMP were, and continue to be, central figures. This further informs questions about the lack of attention, care, or compassion George received while in custody. According to Lucas:
“In some ways I’m saying it’s not surprising where she ended up, given our own family history. Both my parents are survivors of residential schools. You only know how to deal with things in one manner, and that’s get angry and say what the hell is wrong with you, get your act together, and you are yelling..It just got her more determined to say, ‘I don’t have to deal with you and I will do what I want, just leave me alone,’ and it just got harder and harder for us to deal with.” (quoted in Zussman 2016b)
Two young children, four months and three years old, are left without their mother. She is fondly remembered by family members who recall a sweet girl. According to Christopher Cenmane, the father of her four-month-old daughter: “She was too young to say goodbye. I will always love her. I will always have her living in my heart. She is young, beautiful, smart. She will always be my love” (quoted in CBC 2016).
Incredibly, but in manner too common in cases of police involved deaths of civilians, the family was not even notified by police that their loved one had been taken to hospital. The family reports that they would not have known at all about the situation if an Indigenous hospital worker had not called to tell them (Zussman 2016b).
In the words of the victim’s cousin Lee Lucas: “We know she was brought in and they said she was okay, and she was found in the morning. Our main concern is to find out what happened in the time between when she was arrested and when the ambulance picked her up” (quoted in Zussman 2016a).
The family hopes the investigation will address police protocols for interacting with people dealing with addictions and/or health care issues. According to Lee Lucas: “If things can change from this, if cop protocols can change from this when they bring someone in who has issues like this…You have got to look at how they are brought in and why they are not checked out” (quoted in Zussman 2016a). Again questions remain to be asked why police are taking custody of people in health crises and why alternative care and support are not made available rather than police and detention. And why are police allowed to impose penalty and punishment in these cases in any event?
Jocelyn George’s cousin further points out that such punitive policing is especially deployed against Indigenous people and it is taking a brutal toll. In her words: “Sometimes things have to change because this is happening far too much especially for our people in this province” (quoted in Zussman 2016a). Change must come and directly.
Anyone waiting for or expecting answers or police accountability from the IIO are likely to be disappointed. The agency, which has a connection with training through the Justice Institute of BC police academy has taken exceedingly long times to complete investigations and does not have a good record of finding against police involved in civilian deaths in the province.
CBC. 2016. “18-Year-Old Port Alberni Woman Dies in Police Custody.” CBC News. June 28. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/jocelyn-george-dies-rcmp-1.3657258
Monchalin, Lisa. 2016. The Colonial Problem. Toronto: University of Toronto Press
Zussman, Richard. 2016a. “Family Demanding Answers after Death of Jocelyn George in Police Custody.” CBC News. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/family-demanding-answers-after-death-of-jocelyn-george-in-police-custody-1.3659344
Zussman, Richard. 2016b. “Questions Surround B.C. Teen’s Tragic Death in Police Custody.” CBC News. July 1. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/jocelyn-george-port-alberni-questions-1.3661096