A Troubled Explanation: Using Victims’ Histories of Mental Illness to Excuse Killer Cops

It is rare for police who kill civilians in Canada to suffer any repercussions for their actions. They are almost never charged, for even lesser offenses let alone murder, and are generally not subject even to administrative discipline. Even more police who kill are provided with a number of pre-packaged excuses to let them off the hook when they kill. Among these are the myth of the dangerous job, excited delirium, and victim blaming. The latter is often used in cases where police kill someone experiencing addiction or mental health issues. Often inquests and coroner’s inquiries replay these excuses in legitimizing the actions of killer police.

A particularly offensive example of this can be found recently in the report released on Friday, December 9, by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) in the case of RCMP officers who shot and killed a 47-year-old Morinville man in May of 2015. While not at all surprising that ASIRT found the RCMP officers to be justified in killing a civilian, it was rather stunning that ASIRT executive director Susan Hughson would victim blame by calling the victim “a troubled man” with “a troubled history” and focusing on his history of mental health issues. And the executive director took the step of issuing a statement to this effect.


The Killing

In the case of this killing RCMP were called to a home in the countryside by a family member who claimed that the man, who was prohibited from being on the property by court order was supposedly “acting out of character” (CBC News 2016). The family member claimed the victim might have stopped taking medication.

Some time after 7:30 PM, four officers arrived at the home and undertook a search of the property looking for the man. After more than an hour the man was spotted in a field nearby, not on the property. Police may then have agitated the man by telling him he was under arrest. After yelling at the man he reportedly picked up two long rifles and turned an walked away from the police. Yes, according to the ASIRT report he walked away from, not toward, the police. Officers continued to use the language of arrest and surrender. At some point when the man turned around he was shot once by an officer, falling to the ground.

Rather than assist the man officers waited for both air crews and an armored vehicle to arrive before going to “secure the suspect” (CBC News 2016). The man could not be revived and died at the scene. Notably he had been shot once in the abdomen and might have survived with earlier assistance.


OK to Kill a Troubled Man? An Ideology of Legitimation

Notably the justification given by ASIRT for the police killing leaned very heavily on victim blaming and emphasizing the man’s “lengthy and troubled history of significant mental illness” (CBC News 2016). Executive director Hughson doubled down by also highlighting the victim’s “conflict with the law” (CBC News 2016). According to the executive director’s statement: “He had a documented history of psychotic and mood related behavioural issues and delusional thoughts for which his family had repeatedly sought help” (CBC News 2016). Hughson’s statement continued: “Within the preceding year, the man had previously made comments that he would not be able to handle going to jail, that he hated police, and that he had had suicidal thoughts. He was supposed to be under psychiatric care at the time of his death” (CBC News 2016). Clearly the police emphasis that he was under arrest would have stoked any anxiety about a possible return to jail.

But this background is purely justificatory. The history does not speak to the actions of police on that day in that place. It provides a screen behind which virtually any police action, at any time, in any context could be legitimized. In this case ASIRT executive director is saying that the victim’s history allows for any and all actions taken by police against him. This is the ideology of legitimation that excuses police violence and killings of civilians.


Further Reading

CBC News. 2016. “A Troubled History: RCMP Justified in Shooting Death of Alberta Man, Investigation Concludes.” CBC News. December 9. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/a-troubled-history-rcmp-justified-in-shooting-death-of-alberta-man-investigation-concludes-1.3889522

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