Nursing student in civil suit against RCMP says wellness checks need to change
In surveillance video, Mona Wang is dragged by Mountie out of her Kelowna, B.C., condo and later stepped on
The Kelowna, B.C., nursing student seen in an apartment surveillance video being dragged by an RCMP officer down a hallway before being stepped on during a wellness check says police should be accompanied by a health professional.
"I thought, 'What's going to happen after this? Where am I supposed to go when the people who are supposed to protect you are the ones that are abusing you?'" Mona Wang, 20, said in an interview with CBC about her experience.
On January 20, Wang, who says she has history of anxiety, was having a panic attack. She had been in contact with her boyfriend in Vancouver, but when she stopped responding to his texts, he got worried and called emergency responders to check up on her.
"I had self-harmed a little bit and drank two glasses of wine and ingested some medication. I wasn't really in the best state due to the alcohol and [the medication]," she said.
RCMP officer Const. Lacy Browning arrived alone at Wang's Kelowna condo to do the wellness check.
In her notice of claim, Wang alleges Browning used excessive force during the check, at one point punching Wang and leaving her with bruises on her face, while shouting at her "to stop being so dramatic." Surveillance video later shows Browning dragging Wang across the hallway, and later, stepping on her head.
"So many people in the building were walking past, people I see on a daily basis. It felt so humiliating and so degrading," Wang said.
"I was of no threat to her. I had my hands cuffed behind my back, laying on the floor on my stomach."
The RCMP have denied the allegations and say Browning used reasonable force given the circumstances. In Browning's statement of defence, she alleges Wang had a box cutter in her hand.
After she removed the knife, Browning claims the student was initially unresponsive but then became combative, and started yelling that she wanted to be killed.
"The defendant Browning then struck the plaintiff several times with an open palm, which subdued the plaintiff sufficiently for the defendant Browning to successfully handcuff the plaintiff," the legal response states.
Wang denies she was holding a box cutter, saying it was across the room.
The case is still before the courts.
Watch Mona Wang talk to CBC's Lien Yeung about her experience:
Growing number of mental health calls to police
The police say the number of mental health calls officers have had to respond to has grown exponentially in recent years.
Brenda Lucki, the RCMP commissioner, said RCMP have an important role to play in these situations.
"When someone is holding a knife and suffering from a mental health crisis, that is not the time to be bringing in mental health practitioners," she said during the House of Commons public safety and national security committee meeting Tuesday.
"It's time for the RCMP to go in, get that person calm, get them to a place of safety and get them the help they need."
In Surrey, RCMP say they responded to 7,000 mental health calls in 2019. The detachment has made an attempt to better respond to these calls by creating the Car 67 program. In it, a mental health nurse is paired with an officer to attend certain calls.
Cpl. Scotty Schumann, an officer with the program, says it is disheartening to see people struggling with mental health issues and not getting the help they need. He also noted the expertise of the nurse in specific situations.
"There's definitely times when, without the nurse, we may have apprehended someone not recognizing the signs of a mental health issue," Schumann said.
Wang says that kind of pairing could be a good way to prevent what happened to her.
"I don't believe that police officers should go alone to a wellness check," she said. "[And] I think it's very important for a mental health nurse or a social worker or any other kind of allied health to accompany police … because they have the skills needed."
Referring to her own training, Wang says nurses are specifically taught to use de-escalation techniques without resorting to force.
"We have combative and aggressive patients all the time," she said. "It's telling them that your feelings are valid and speaking through it."
Renewed scrutiny on wellness checks
Wang is not the only one calling for significant change to wellness checks. Her case and others have put increased scrutiny on the role of the police in dealing with mental health crises.
Since the beginning of April this year, at least four people have died in Canada during the course of a police-involved wellness checks.
- D'Andre Campbell, a 26-year-old Black man with schizophrenia, was shot dead on April 6 in Brampton, Ont., after calling Peel Regional Police himself for help.
- Regis Korchinski-Paquet, 29, a Black-Indigenous woman, died after falling from a high-rise balcony in Toronto after her family called the police for help on May 27.
- In New Brunswick, Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old Indigenous woman, was shot and killed by an officer on June 4 during a wellness check.
- And on June 20, Ejaz Ahmed Choudry, a 62-year-old Pakistani immigrant who had schizophrenia, was shot and killed by police in Mississauga, Ont., during a wellness check.
Meenakshi Mannoe, with Vancouver's Pivot Legal Society, says she's not surprised by these stories, citing past deaths in the Lower Mainland such as Tony Du, a 51-year-old man who was shot by police in 2014 after brandishing a two-by-four at a Vancouver intersection, and Kyaw Naing Din, who was killed in his Maple Ridge, B.C. home in 2019. Both men had mental illnesses.
Mannoe says the use of police to deal with mental health crises shows that too many people are being failed by the mental health system.
"For folks that contact the RCMP for a wellness check or any kind of check or any kind of police authority, it represents the failure of community services. It is people at their wits end about who to call," she said.
She said there needs to be more support — and funding — for peer-support workers, counsellors and health professionals.
"It's so important that we respond to people empathetically and also in culturally-safe, trauma-informed ways rather than use of force or potentially lethal use of force."
With files from Brady Strachan, Lien Yeung, Andrea Ross, and On The Coast