B.C. has seen more police shootings this year. A different response to crime is needed, say experts, advocates
In 4 months, the IIO has seen more than twice the number of police shootings it usually sees in a year
When a police interaction in British Columbia ends with someone being killed or seriously injured, the province's Independent Investigations Office (IIO) launches an investigation into what happened.
On average, the IIO deals with six to seven police-involved shootings every year. But in 2022, four months into a new fiscal year, there have already been 15.
"Unfortunately our office has been extremely busy. We have faced an unprecedented number of officer-involved shootings," Ron MacDonald, IIO's chief civilian director, told CBC on Monday, two days after police shot a suspect in a machete attack on the Granville strip.
"We've had more than double the number in one-third of the time."
MacDonald says he's not sure why there's been a sharp increase in police using their weapons, but the IIO has noticed an "unusual" amount of police interactions where a suspect was armed with a gun.
Since April 1, the IIO has opened 95 investigations, 30 of which were related to incidents that took place in Vancouver, where officers with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) were involved in four deaths and 26 serious injuries.
The 65 other incidents being investigated by the IIO are scattered across the province. Most involved RCMP officers, including four deaths in Surrey, two in Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, and two in Vernon in the Southern Interior.
During the same period, there were also two incidents of serious harm involving RCMP officers in each of Saanich, Nanaimo, Burnaby, Coquitlam, Kelowna, Prince George and Cranbrook.
In a statement to CBC, Const. Tania Visintin said VPD officers have training in crisis de-escalation, but in some cases they have to use their weapons to protect themselves and others.
"There's definitely been an increase in violent incidents throughout the city," she said.
"Since April, we've had four police-involved shootings ... [which] were necessary to prevent additional members of the public or police officers from being seriously injured or killed."
Different approaches needed to address crime
Kash Heed, former B.C. public safety minister and former West Vancouver police chief, says the city and province need different approaches to address different types of violent crime — those by repeat offenders and people involved in gang activity, and those by people committing crimes tied to substance use, mental health issues, or their social or economic situations.
"Violent offenders I strongly believe they should be incarcerated ... and maybe some of them throw away the key," he told CBC.
"But there's such an array of other other offenders that need to be treated differently, whether it's through some type of harm reduction, treatment or emotional health issue that needs to be addressed."
Wade Deisman, a criminologist and associate dean in the faculty of arts at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, concurs, adding that he recommends more support and education for vulnerable young people to deter them from turning to crime as they get older.
"I fully support [a] prevention orientation approach," he said. "[An] emphasis on prevention and early identification of what turn out to be the underlying or root causes of what results in extreme violence."
Deisman says he supports defunding the police, but feels that discussion needs to be framed in a way that's less polarizing.
He says it's about restructuring and redirecting policing resources to community organizations and intervention workers, who can help address substance use and mental health issues.
"Really what we're talking about is trying to send the resources further up the river so that we can nip some of these problems in the bud," Deisman said.
In an emailed statement to CBC, B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the government is making "historic" investments in mental health and addictions care, and working hard to build a comprehensive system of care for all British Columbians.
'A peer-led crisis response is ideal,' advocate says
Meenakshi Mannoe, a campaigner with Pivot Legal Society, says B.C. — and Canada — need an alternative form of crisis response that does not rely on guns.
"Fundamentally, we should be working towards a society where there are no deaths in police custody," she told CBC, adding that Black and Indigenous people are over-represented in the number of people experiencing mental distress who are killed by police in Canada.
"I think a peer-led crisis response is ideal," she said. "What we're seeing right now is that the police are the only body funded to do a 24/7 response — whether or not it's appropriate."
Mannoe says she thinks the province's police oversight body doesn't have the capacity to bring about real change, and that change needs to come from people in power, with support from the community.
She adds that family members of people killed or hurt by police in B.C. should have access to legal aid, and that police should stop targeting people who use drugs.
"I don't think that the IIO has been effective at addressing police-involved killings or incidents of harm on a structural level," she said.
"They're a colonial institution that lacks the ability or intent to really substantively change policing or address policies that enable deaths at the hands of police."
With files from Eva Uguen-Csenge, Akshay Kulkarni and B.C. Today