A year after a psychiatric patient was charged with the killing of a prominent Halifax activist, the province says it has made changes to improve community safety.

Raymond Taavel was beaten to death on Gottingen Street one year ago Wednesday. Andre Noel Denny was charged with second-degree murder. Denny was on leave from the East Coast Forensics Hospital at the time.

Denny has not been convicted of any crime and his case will be back in court this July.

"Today I, like all Nova Scotians, will remember Raymond Taavel. And we will honour his memory by continuing to do the hard work necessary to keep Nova Scotians safe," Health and Wellness Minister David Wilson said. "We have made progress, but we know we can do more to ensure the public is kept safe while, at the same time, helping to treat and rehabilitate forensic patients."

The main change has been building a smoking area for patients at the East Coast Forensics Hospital. Currently, patients must take a one-hour leave from the hospital to smoke a cigarette.

The smoke spot was near a bus stop in Halifax and Denny left the hospital during such a break.

The incident sparked a review of community access privileges by the departments of justice and health, and the Capital District Health Authority.

Balancing recovery and community safety

Dr. Scott Theriault said progress has been made. He’s the clinical director for the department of psychiatry at Capital Health.

"We have constructed in the interior of our building a smoking area that patients will be able to use later this month," he said Wednesday.

It’s in an outdoor courtyard within the secured compound.

"Patients will be able to smoke without leaving the building and we will be able to change our policy around passes, so there will be no more of these one-hour passes. They will be a minimum three-hour passes."

The hospital also added a new position of community monitor. That person will check that patients are where they say they will be. "A patient would leave the hospital with an itinerary of where they’re going to be for the day and [the community monitor] would go and check that they’re in fact where they’re supposed to be," Theriault said.

He said it wasn’t uncommon for one of the 60 patients in the rehabilitation section to go absent without leave on short breaks. The hospital is trying to balance risk to community and responsibility to patients.

"We need to continue to rehabilitate those under our care ... and the only way we can do that is to get them into the community," he said. "We need to do that in a way that the community is safe. The tragic events of last year were terrible, but it’s a low-probability event. We will continue to work to keep that probability as low as possible."

Tighter control

Several of the 18 recommendations made last year to improve safety have been implemented. They include:

  • Building a new smoking area at the East Coast Forensics Hospital
  • Eliminating one-hour community access passes
  • Suspending future leaves if a patient does not return on time
  • Reviewing assessments for patients deemed well enough to leave the facility
  • Hiring a community monitor to check on patients
  • Improving tracking and statistics of the number of patients who have been absent without leave

The hospital is also training staff to assess a patient's mental state before each leave.

The province expects all recommendations will be complete by September.  

Friends of Taavel's are gathering at Menz Bar and the Company House in Halifax between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Province House is flying a rainbow flag at half mast Wednesday to remember the gay-rights activist.

"We're looking back on the loss a community activist, of an equality activist whose work extended beyond any single community," said Premier Darrell Dexter. "We're looking back now at the work that has been done and the work that is yet to be done."