B.C. has country's highest rate of police-involved deaths, groundbreaking CBC data reveals
With 98 deaths since 2000, province has highest rate of police fatalities per capita in the country
This story is part of Deadly Force, a CBC News investigation into police-involved fatalities in Canada.
Debbie Edey's son was shot during an attempted traffic stop in 2015, but the details of her son's death remained a mystery to her for three years.
Waylon Edey, 39, who was killed near Castlegar, B.C., is one of the 461 deaths compiled by CBC in a first-of-its-kind database looking at police-related fatalities across Canada.
RCMP Const. Jason Tait was charged Tuesday with manslaughter in connection with Edey's death. The officer had responded after police received a call about an impaired driver on Highway 3.
CBC's data also revealed that B.C. — with 98 deaths — had the highest per capita rate of police-involved fatalities in Canada. Two postal code zones in B.C. were tied for the highest rates in Canada.
A CBC team spent months combing coroners' reports and court records for police-related fatalities between 2000 and 2017. These do not include in-custody deaths, suicides or deaths as a result of police chases.
Edey hopes the data will help avoid deaths like her son's.
"I still find it hard to even talk about because you don't know anything," she told CBC before the manslaughter charge was laid against the officer this week.
Police-related deaths affect about one person in one million in Canada.
Since 2000, there has been an average of 27 police gunshot deaths a year.
By comparison, in the U.S., the most comprehensive list of deaths created by the Washington Post estimates there are about 1,000 Americans killed annually by police gunshots.
Despite the relatively low numbers on this side of the border, collecting detailed data on these deaths is useful, say experts who have long called for more transparency.
Sgt. Mike Massine, a top use-of-force techniques trainer at the Justice Institute of B.C., is thrilled with the new CBC database, which he plans to use to improve training.
Massine said the numbers may help police deal with how they deal with people in crisis.
Massine said all officers in B.C. go through de-escalation training, a shift since the pivotal Braidwood Inquiry into Robert Dziekanski's death at the Vancouver airport in 2007.
Dziekanski was jolted several times with an RCMP Taser and died in the arrivals area of the airport.
"We really preach to take a step back, slow things down. We'd like to have zero deaths," said Massine.
"We are human beings. I still haven't met anybody who suits up hoping to hurt somebody that day. It's life changing."
Police-related deaths in B.C.
Most Canadian police officers never fire at another human.
But the high number of emergency calls that police respond to can increase the odds that will happen, said Massine.
CBC's data revealed two spots in B.C. with the highest police-related deaths: the Downtown Eastside and a vast swath of the rural Interior spanning from Iskut in northwest B.C. to south of (but not including) Prince George.
The data also revealed that B.C. is second only to Alberta in the rate of people with substance abuse who died in police-involved incidents. In Alberta, that figure was 70 per cent compared with 59 per cent in B.C.
The majority of fatal incidents involved unarmed white males with mental health and substance abuse issues.
The average age of victims was 36. While most people who died were white, both indigenous and black victims were over-represented, given they represent a much smaller percentage of the population.
Death was most often caused by shooting or restraint.
The services that cover the most populous areas of the province — the RCMP in rural B.C., and the Vancouver Police Department in Canada's third-largest metropolitan area — are most often involved in deaths.
Victims are most often:
- Male (97 per cent)
- Unarmed (36.4 per cent)
- Killed in shooting (58.6 per cent)
- White (47.5 per cent)
- Unknown race (27.3 per cent)
Overwhelmingly, people who die are either in mental distress (64 per cent) or have discernible mental health or substance abuse issues (75.8 per cent).
'Fear meets fear'
David Boyd wasn't shocked by the statistics. His son Paul was shot nine times as he crawled along Granville Street in Vancouver in 2007.
Five years later, a tourist video of the killing turned up, sparking outrage. Police use-of-force techniques were scrutinized during an independent inquiry into the shooting.
Paul Boyd, a talented animator who had bipolar disorder, was trying to get to a clinic the day he was shot and killed "like an animal in the street," his father said.
Boyd hopes the hard data showing how many of these crises involve the mentally ill will prevent deaths like his son's.
"When fear meets fear, nothing goes well," said Boyd, who long ago forgave the officer involved. During the inquest, the officer expressed deep remorse.
"The constable that killed my son deserves love as much as my son did," he said.
Officers involved in fatal events are often haunted by the incidents.
Sergio Falzi said his ex-partner was forced to shoot a man to save his life in 1995.
"It kind of came to that point, kind of a calmness when I realized, we had no choice," Falzi said.
Falzi, a career officer who now helps colleagues affected by PTSD, says officers get inadequate training to deal with the high number of mental health crises they face.
Often, he said, officers end up facing people who are acting erratic and violent in situations where missteps can turn fatal.
But the notion that every officer needs to diffuse and calm crisis situations and avoid using force or weapons at all times is divisive.
Tom Stamatakis, head of the Vancouver Police Union, says de-escalation needs to be balanced with the need to keep officers safe.
"I don't think part of the policing contract in this country is, I accept the fact that, what, I lose an eye? I lose a limb? I'm disabled for the rest of my life?" Stamatakis said.
Talk, take time
But experts argue danger is averted by a slower approach.
Terry Coleman, a Calgary police inspector turned academic, has spent years studying fatal police incidents.
As a rookie officer in the 1970s, he once faced an angry, drunk man who levelled a shotgun at his chest.
He talked the man down, avoiding tragedy. He's glad he called out to the man, saying his name, instead of grabbing for his own gun.
"If I'd drawn my firearm, in his state, he would have likely pulled the trigger."
'Light bulb moment'
For Massine, an epiphany came during a personal mental crisis during a family holiday in 2013.
The long-time officer became overwhelmed by buried memories and had a breakdown.
He was overcome thinking about two incidents with a man who tried to kill him when he was a rookie. Twenty years later, that same man attempted suicide and Massine revived him.
As Massine struggled to deal with these memories, he said he had trouble talking or making sense.
He often wonders how he would have reacted if police had been called to deal with him on that holiday.
It was a "light bulb moment" for him about how crucial it is to approach a person in crisis with care.
"It really made me realize that, maybe, I'm lucky police weren't called."
Data analysis and research by Jacques Marcoux