CBC Investigates

Most Canadians killed in police encounters since 2000 had mental health or substance abuse issues

More than 460 people have died in encounters with police in Canada since 2000, and a substantial majority suffered from mental illness or symptoms of drug abuse, a CBC News investigation has found.

More than 460 people have died in encounters with police in Canada since 2000

O’Brien Christopher Reid was killed by police in Toronto in June 2004 after he was found walking shirtless through a Toronto park carrying a knife. (Jackie Christopher)

This story is part of Deadly Force, a CBC News investigation into police-involved fatalities in Canada.


More than 460 people have died in encounters with police across Canada since the year 2000, and a substantial majority suffered from mental health problems or symptoms of drug abuse, a CBC News investigation has found.

No government agency or police force maintains national statistics on police-involved fatalities, but a comprehensive database assembled by CBC shows that 70 per cent of the people who died struggled with mental health issues or substance abuse or both.

A further breakdown shows 42 per cent of those who died were mentally distressed, while 45 per cent were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

(CBC)

One of the victims was O'Brien Christopher Reid, who was killed in Toronto in June 2004. Reid, who was mentally ill and afraid of police, was walking shirtless through a Toronto park carrying a knife when officers confronted him and used pepper spray to try to subdue him. He ran, and during the pursuit, was shot in the back and died.

Jackie Christopher said her son, a chemical engineering student, wasn't known to police. She said the officers should have walked up to him and calmly explained why they were there.

The 2007 inquest report into his death agreed and recommended Toronto police improve training for officers dealing with people in mental crisis and focus more on de-escalation tactics and less on confrontation.

Christopher feels gutted by the results of the CBC analysis.

"Absolutely nothing has changed," Christopher said. "They have done inquest upon inquest upon inquest upon inquest with the same results every fricking time," Christopher said. "The same conclusion, but nothing's going to happen."

'It's definitely getting worse'

The data, which was gathered from inquests, investigation unit reports, media reports and other public records, shows the number of people who die in confrontations with police has been on the rise. The rate at which Canadians die in encounters with police has nearly doubled in the last 20 years.

Jennifer Lavoie, a criminologist at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the dissolution of traditional large-scale residential care facilities and a lack of resources for the mentally ill has contributed to the rise in incidents between police and those in emotional distress. (Jennifer Lavoie)

The incidence of fatal encounters is worst in western Canada. British Columbia has the highest per capita rate of police-involved deaths among all provinces.

The number of people who struggle with mental health and die in these encounters is steadily climbing at a similar rate.

"Oh, it's definitely getting worse," said Jennifer Lavoie, a criminologist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ont. Lavoie said the dissolution of traditional large-scale residential care facilities and a lack of resources for the mentally ill has contributed to the rise in incidents between police and those in emotional distress.

Lavoie believes the stigma of mental illness contributes to the use of lethal force in these cases.

"I think officers likely have the same kinds of attitudes towards people with mental illness that the public does, which is the attitude that people with mental illness tend to be more unpredictable, more dangerous than the general population," Lavoie said.

Heather Thompson thinks that perception played a role in the death of her son, Ian Pryce.

Ian Pryce was a Toronto resident who suffered from schizophrenia and was fearful of police. He died in November 2013, after officers attempted to take him into custody. (Heather Thompson)

The 31-year-old Toronto resident suffered from paranoia and was fearful of police. When officers attempted to take him into custody in November 2013, Pryce ran into an alley with a pellet gun. Police held their fire for more than hour, during which he appeared to take aim at them. Eventually, officers opened fire and killed him. The SIU report concluded police had no way of knowing at the time that Pryce's weapon was not a genuine firearm.

She said part of the process is "changing the mindset of cops when they see people that are in need."

"Instead of pulling your gun, use another tactic, because most of these people are scared out of their wits. They need help, but they may not necessarily know that they need help," Thompson said.

Taking action

Some Canadian police forces are tackling the issue head on. The Hamilton Police Service created a special unit in 2013 designed to intervene in crisis situations involving mental health. It now operates distinct squads that specialize in de-escalation and mental health or substance-abuse-related calls.

Its Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Teams embed mental health professionals with the police and put the emphasis on connecting people in distress with medical and community services.

'There's so many times that these individuals don't need to go to hospital, they don't need to be arrested. They just need somebody to talk to," said Sgt. Steve Holmes, who heads up a special unit of the Hamilton police force designed to intervene in crisis situations involving mental health. (Barry Smith/CBC)

"There's so many times that these individuals don't need to go to hospital, they don't need to be arrested. They just need somebody to talk to," said Sgt. Steve Holmes, who heads up the unit.

Holmes said many officers in the Hamilton force are specially trained to spot the signs of a mentally ill or distressed person and work to calm them.

"It's about dialogue. It's about slowing down the situation. De-escalating the situation and really, we have all the time in the day to come of a healthy and safe conclusion for this individual and for our teams involved."

The model has been so successful that Hamilton police have trained neighbouring forces on their methods. A similar program is also in place in Edmonton. Holmes said mobile crisis rapid response units like his should be mandatory for all police forces.

"I can't even put a number to how many of these calls that could have ended tragically or ended in injury," Holmes said.

Despite its efforts, the Hamilton police force was involved in another fatality on the night of April 3, when a 19-year-old man was shot. Details are still emerging.

Easing a crisis situation

Retired Moose Jaw Police chief Terry Coleman agrees specialized training and education in mental health is important, but said police forces need to do a better job selecting recruits who already possess some of the skills needed to deal with people in crisis.

Retired Moose Jaw police chief Terry Coleman said police forces need to do a better job selecting recruits who possess some of the skills needed to deal with people in crisis. (Colin Hall/CBC)

He said "sensitivity, empathy, communication skills" are "key to this."

According to Coleman, police need to understand why a person in distress might not respond to their commands, and why an aggressive approach can be disastrous for someone who is mentally ill or impaired.

"Sometimes they are hearing other voices, so a police officer shouting or, worse yet, multiple police officers shouting is only going to compound that situation," he said. "It's certainly not going to bring the temperature down at all."

Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, doesn't dispute more training is a good thing, but said not all forces have the resources. He said a common complaint among officers is that they can't rapidly access important information about a person's mental health status or background in a crisis situation.

"We're not getting information about what kind of words or actions might trigger more aggressive behaviour, or what kind words or actions might have a calming effect on a person in a crisis," he said.

Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, said officers often complain that they can't access information about a person's mental health status or background in a crisis situation. (Harold Dupuis/CBC)

He said police are encountering increasing numbers of people with mental health issues because here has been a concerted effort to move such individuals out of institutions and integrate them into the community. The problem, he said, is that at the same time, governments have failed to put enough mental health resources into the community.

"And so, by default, it's been left to us to deal with people suffering from mental health issues when they're in crises," said Stamatakis.

It's something Heather Thompson has thought about every day since her son was shot five years ago — that the responsibility of preventing another shooting death of a mentally ill person doesn't just lie with police.

"It's on all of us."


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