Deadly force: Impacts of Karen Lander's death reverberate in N.W.T, 6 years later

On March 14, 2012, police were called to a home in Yellowknife, where Karen Lander had barricaded herself inside and was threatening suicide. RCMP had received reports there were between 20 and 30 guns inside the home.

Recent CBC analysis looked at number of people who died in police incidents between 2000 and 2017

Yellowknife RCMP vehicles block the street outside Karen Lander's home. Lander was shot and killed by police during a standoff in March 2012. (CBC)

Of 461 deadly encounters with police in Canada over the last 18 years, 70 per cent of the victims suffered from mental health or substance abuse issues — including the Northwest Territories' only victim, Karen Lander.

On March 14, 2012, police were called to a home in Yellowknife, where Lander had barricaded herself inside and was threatening suicide. When she came out of the house carrying a rifle and pointed it at officers, RCMP officers opened fire on Lander. She was shot four times.

A recent CBC analysis found there have been 461 fatal encounters with police in Canada between 2000 and 2017 — including two with police in Yukon, and five in Nunavut.

The CBC investigation found that 70 per cent of the victims suffered from a mental health problem, struggled with substance abuse, or both. Indigenous people are also an over-represented group in the fatal encounters.

Karen Lander, right, seen with her daughter Mila Algiak, left. (Photo courtesy of Mila Algiak)

Lander was an Indigenous woman with a history of mental health and substance abuse issues, according to a coroner's report into her death.

The report said alcohol abuse, chronic depression, borderline personality disorder, and suicidal ideation could have been contributing factors to Lander's death.

A coroner's inquest into her death in 2013 heard Lander had been to the hospital a number of times in the years leading up to her death — including the month before she died — because she had been threatening suicide.

An emergency room doctor also spoke with Lander the day before the shooting, after she was hospitalized involuntarily for threatening to kill herself.

Lander couldn't be assessed that night because she was intoxicated, but when she sobered up she said she didn't remember making threats and didn't want to die, so she was released from the hospital.

On the day she was killed, a crisis negotiator spoke to the woman for several hours to try to help her. Lander had been threatening to hurt other people and herself. RCMP had received reports there were between 20 and 30 guns inside the home.

It was later discovered that her firearm was not loaded.

What's changed?

Sixteen recommendations came out of the coroner's inquest, directed at health and government officials, as well as the RCMP.

They included better services for people with addictions and mental health issues, particularly for Indigenous patients, and dedicated psychiatric nurses to assess patients with suicidal thoughts.

After Lander's death, Stanton Territorial Hospital added a second full-time psychiatrist. It now has the equivalent of three, according to the N.W.T. Health and Social Services Authority.

Six recommendations were for the RCMP, including one that said officers escorting people with suicidal thoughts to the emergency room should speak to a psychiatrist before leaving that person.

Four of the recommendations had already been addressed under the RCMP's national policy, said Marie York-Condon, media relations for the N.W.T. RCMP, in an email.

The N.W.T. RCMP's policy was changed to address the two other recommendations.

One ensures anyone with mental health problems taken into custody "is delivered without delay to a medical practitioner or a hospital within the Northwest Territories for psychiatric assessment," said York-Condon.

The medical practitioner will also be provided with all the relevant information about the person and police contact information in case there is a need for follow up.

The other change was to make sure that police are provided with non-lethal weapons are are trained to use them.