British Columbia

Vancouver police defend use of beanbag guns as 'less lethal' following death of Ojibway man

Chris Amyotte, 42, died after being shot by beanbag guns by VPD. Witnesses say he had been asking for help.

Chris Amyotte, 42, died after being shot by beanbag guns by VPD

Chris Amyotte, 42, was a father of eight who lived in Winnipeg. He was in Vancouver visiting family when he was shot by police with a beanbag gun. Witnesses say he was in distress and asking for help before police arrived. (Submitted by Samantha Wilson)

Vancouver police say a man who died after officers used a beanbag shotgun on Monday had asked bystanders for help following a "violent incident'' that occurred moments earlier.

Police have not confirmed the man's identity, but the family of Chris Amyotte, an Ojibway man from Manitoba, said it was he who died on the Downtown Eastside.

Amyotte's cousin, Samantha Wilson, said witnesses told her he had been bear-sprayed and was asking for help before police arrived at the scene, and Amyotte was unarmed.

Sgt. Steve Addison of the Vancouver Police Department said the Independent Investigations Office, B.C.'s police watchdog, had jurisdiction over the investigation.

However, he said the VPD believed the man who died "did ask for help from a number of bystanders, who did not offer assistance."

WATCH | Samantha Wilson speaks about the death of her cousin in Vancouver:

Family speaks about man who died after being shot by police beanbag gun

5 months ago
Duration 0:50
The cousin of Chris Amyotte, the man identified as the person who died after being shot by Vancouver police with a beanbag gun, says the family is still processing Amyotte's unexpected passing and wants more answers from police.

"When our officers arrived, they attempted to communicate with the man verbally. Witnesses have reported that there was a confrontation,'' he said in an emailed statement Thursday.

Addison, who said in a news conference on Monday that a beanbag shotgun had been used, called the weapon "a safe and effective less-lethal tool.''

"It is used as an alternative to lethal force and can be deployed against a person who is acting violently or displaying assaultive behaviour,'' Addison said in the statement.

He said the IIO would determine whether the man who died was in possession of a weapon, but "possession of a weapon is not required for deployment of a beanbag shotgun.''

'Chris did not deserve to die' 

On Thursday, the Atira Women's Resource Society in B.C. issued a statement about Amyotte's death on behalf of his family, saying that two of his brothers and a sister-in-law work for Atira.

It described him as a "father, grandfather, husband, brother and uncle" who "was always joking around" and "making fun of himself."

An Indigenous man with a Winnipeg Jets hat on makes the peace symbol towards the camera. He has tattoos all along his arms.
Family has identified Chris Amyotte, 42, as the man who died after being shot by Vancouver police with a beanbag gun. (Submitted by Samantha Wilson)

The family says Amyotte was born on the Ditibineya-ziibiing (Rolling River) First Nation in southern Manitoba where he was well-known in the community, and that he is survived by eight children.

"Whatever happened on the morning of August 22nd, Chris did not deserve to die," the statement said, adding that the family expects a "thorough and fair" investigation.

"As a First Nations man, this is not the first time Chris has been harmed by a police force."

'It's time for it to stop'

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples said it was "furious'' to hear about the death.

Kim Beaudin, national vice-chief with the organization, said in a statement Thursday that the incident was a tragedy that showcased the "deep and ongoing failures by police when dealing with Indigenous people in distress.''

"Indigenous people are 10 times more likely to be shot and killed by police in Canada, and it's time for it to stop,'' he said in the statement.

Wilson said Amyotte arrived in Vancouver on Aug. 17 to visit family members. Days later, the family would learn he died, Wilson said.

"It's not something you expect to be told. I'm very angry,'' she said in an interview Thursday.

Listen | VPD Sgt. Steve Addison on policing the Downtown Eastside and the death of Chris Amyotte:

This past Sunday, officers were told guns and drugs were stored in a tent near Hastings and Carrall. They arrested four men and seized two guns, including a loaded shotgun that was found inside a tent. And on Monday, a 42-year-old man named Chris Amyotte died, after being shot multiple times by Vancouver police with a beanbag gun. Sgt. Steve Addison from VPD joins us to discuss the policing at this time.

After hearing the news, Wilson said she looked on social media to see if she could get any more information.

She said she connected with eyewitnesses who told her Amyotte was the victim of a bear-spray attack and that he was asking for help when he removed some of his clothing and began pouring milk on himself to try and counteract the spray.

A Vancouver police press statement said Monday that a man had been taken into custody after an "interaction'' with officers, but he went into medical distress and lost consciousness.

"Despite life-saving attempts, the man died at the scene,'' the statement said.

An Indigenous man is seen wearing a pair of earbuds. He looks quizzical, with his fingers on his mouth.
Chris Amyotte in a 2016 photo. (Submitted by Samantha Wilson)

The IIO said Tuesday that it had been called in to investigate the incident, which began with calls to police responding to a report of a man acting erratically. It said it has begun an investigation to determine what role, if any, police actions or inactions played in the man's death.

Wilson said she would like to see the officers involved held accountable.

"I'd like to see them charged. He asked for help numerous times. (The witnesses) said he wasn't a threat to public safety, that he wasn't trying to hurt anybody. They said he had his arms up in the air before he was shot. He didn't have a weapon. He had a jug of milk in his hand,'' she said.

"He was an unarmed Indigenous man asking for help and when help arrived, they took his life.''

She said Amyotte's family members from Manitoba have travelled to Vancouver to help arrange for Amyotte's body to be brought back to Rolling River, where he will be buried.

"My nieces and my nephews have to live without their father,'' Wilson said. "My family is currently making arrangements to bring him home and we don't even know if these officers have been placed on administrative leave, or if they're still working the streets. We don't know anything.''

Beanbag gun shootings not tracked

While the IIO said it cannot comment on specific cases, spokesperson Rebecca Whalen said there have been 16 police-involved shootings in B.C. since its fiscal year began in April. This, she said, has already doubled the eight shootings it investigated last year.

"There are more (shootings) this year,'' she said in an interview Thursday. "Now, I can't speculate as to why that might be — there could be any number of reasons — but all we know is that there has been an increase this year.''

However, she noted a beanbag gun would not be classified as a firearm shooting, and instead would fall under the use-of-force category.

"We actually don't track statistics on use of a beanbag gun specifically,'' she said.

In its 2021-22 annual report, the office cited 39 use-of-force incidents last year. It said use of force was the "leading cause of serious harm at 28 per cent of all serious harm investigations.''

Former West Vancouver police chief and former B.C. public safety minister Kash Heed says shotguns outfitted to fire bean bag rounds are identified by a brightly coloured barrel to mark them as a "less lethal option."

"It's a munition that's compressed in what looks like a shotgun shell and it's discharged from a shotgun," he told CBC.

"It's meant to stun [an individual] for that instantaneous second where police officers can consider what option they have available at this point, or take the individual into custody," he said.

Heed says he's never seen someone die solely from being hit by a bean bag round.

With files from CBC, Joel Ballard, Karin Larsen and Josh Grant

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