Edmonton has 2nd-most police-involved deaths among municipal forces in Canada, database shows
'This is basic information that the public should have access to that they currently do not'
WARNING: This story includes graphic details.
Yvon Chiasson didn't want to go to the hospital.
It was Feb. 24, 2021, and he was having another manic flare-up of his bipolar disorder, the result of a switch in medication.
He and his wife, Pamela, were trying to have a child, and his previous medication, while effective for his mental health, was affecting his fertility.
Chiasson didn't want to go to the hospital because he knew the lights were triggering for him, and he'd had a bad experience last time.
But the police, who'd arrived in response to Pamela's 911 call for mental health support, convinced him to go, and they took him into custody under the Mental Health Act.
At the Edmonton hospital, Chiasson was placed in a secure room, where his crisis worsened.
An hour later, he was dead after being Tasered and forcibly restrained by five officers and a security guard when he did not comply — although, as a report exonerating police later noted, "it did not appear that [Chiasson] was capable of comprehending what was said" by that point.
"There were many other steps to approach that situation," says Chiasson's widow Pamela Ripi Allivellatore.
"When you are suffering some emotional instability, you need support, not [five] police around you."
Chiasson is one of 39 people who have died since 2000 as a result of the use of force by the Edmonton Police Service, a new data project shows. CBC News has verified that number, however the EPS disputes the overall total.
The Tracking (In)Justice project shows police-involved deaths in Edmonton are the second-highest for any municipal police force in Canada behind Toronto.
Alberta, meanwhile, ranked as the province with the most police-involved deaths per capita, and second only to Ontario in total deaths.
"It's a triple whammy," says University of Alberta criminologist Temitope Oriola.
"The combination of the Edmonton Police Service, the Calgary Police Service and the RCMP is at the epicentre of those grim statistics. None of these three organizations has done a particularly good job of minimizing the use of force."
'This is basic information' for accountability
The Tracking (In)Justice database is a collaborative initiative by academics, researchers and others to create an ongoing public record of people killed following interactions with police across Canada.
It builds upon Deadly Force, a CBC News project first published in 2017 and updated in 2020 that presented data from 2000 onward. That project was static rather than ongoing, and as the Tracking (In)Justice website notes, faced criticism for a lack of transparent methodology.
The group behind the project built upon the Deadly Force data, adding new cases to create what its principal investigator describes as a much-needed living data set.
The project was created because police forces across the country do not routinely provide this type of information to the public.
"In the context of calls for defunding police across Canada and increased scrutiny on police budgets, this is basic information that the public should have access to that they currently do not," says Alexander McClelland, an assistant professor of criminology at Carleton University and project lead.
"So our project exists to call attention to that, to help existing calls for accountability and transparency, and to shine a light on the lack of access of information."
Alberta saw largest increase amongst major provinces
Most provinces saw increases in police-involved deaths over the course of the past 22 years, the data shows. But Alberta is notable for having by far the largest jump among the four largest provinces.
Comparing the number of deaths per year from the first and second half of the 22 years of data, Ontario and British Columbia each saw an increase of about 31 per cent in use of force deaths per year. Quebec's figures increased by 112 per cent.
But annual police-involved deaths in Alberta jumped 166 per cent during 2011-2022 compared with the previous decade, well above the national average of 66.5 per cent.
During that period, Alberta saw 7.5 use-of-force deaths per year, the second-highest figure in the country after Ontario's 11.
The difference between Alberta's two major centres is notable as well. The City of Edmonton — which excludes places like St. Albert and Sherwood Park that are not part of the Edmonton police's jurisdiction — is the fifth-largest municipality in Canada with just over one million people.
Yet the number of people who died due to the use of police force in Edmonton over the past 22 years is 39, well above the 29 who died in Calgary, the country's third-largest city at 1.3 million.
Oriola says the data are not surprising in either the Alberta or national scope, given a confluence of factors, including "a level of limited oversight, and police commissions that often function as a public relations unit of those police services, as well as some quite frankly very powerful police unions that will block any form of attempt at making changes and will stand by individual officers who are accused of, in many cases fairly egregious kinds of misconduct."
EPS: 'The data set is inaccurate'
Asked to comment on the findings of the data and police use of force, EPS cast doubt on the data itself.
"Those who have compiled this website note massive issues with the reliability of their data — but unfortunately use unvalidated numbers to derive conclusions," wrote spokesperson Cheryl Sheppard in an email.
"When writing about the complex nature of policing and use of force in an age of misinformation, we trust that journalists use reliable, consistent, and sound data sets.
"To be clear, we believe that discussions around use of force are important, serious and complex, though this discussion is not served by conclusions that rely on data that is unreliable and lacks contextualization."
In a later statement, Patricia Misutka, the EPS executive director of corporate communications, said "the data set is inaccurate and we know that because the owners of the data set explicitly say that it is inaccurate."
However, while the researchers are clear about the challenges of collecting this type of data — pointing especially to the reluctance of many police organizations to release case details — nowhere do they say it is inaccurate.
"I'm 100 per cent confident on the number [of deaths] in the database, but that is a minimum number," says McClelland. "We may be missing some deaths that happened many years ago that we're still actively working on identifying."
The Tracking (In)Justice website includes methodology details, describing the criteria for including cases, and the sources of the information, such as media reports, police statements and government documents.
As the group notes, there are limits to that data.
"Although individuals in the data set did die as a direct result of the police use of force, confirming an official cause of death is beyond the scope of this project," they write.
There are mechanisms on the site to submit both corrections and new cases for the researchers to review.
McClelland notes that, while each case has been independently reviewed and confirmed by at least two researchers, there is frequently information missing from the public record, such as race or even the name of the deceased.
"The unknowns in our database really are there to also highlight the lack of information that is accessible to the Canadian public on this important issue," he says.
The CBC Deadly Force data that serves as the foundation for Tracking (In)Justice has been cited by several criminology and policing scholars in peer-reviewed academic journals.
Using ASIRT and public inquiry documents, police statements and media reports, CBC News has independently verified each of the 39 deaths attributed to EPS in the database, according to the criteria defined in the researchers' published methodology.
A searchable table of those cases can be found at the bottom of this article.
EPS was initially unclear regarding whether they disputed any of the 39 deaths attributed to the agency in the data set.
After multiple requests for clarification, Misutka said that "27 is the number of occurrences where EPS exercised lethal force between 2000 and 2022." She did not elaborate on the discrepancy between the totals.
CBC News sent a list of the 39 cases to Misutka, asking for clarification on which cases EPS disputed.
Misutka declined, saying EPS was still reviewing the data.
"Once our work has been completed, we will be making our report public given the interest in the discussion and to honour our commitment to transparency."
Misutka noted that EPS provides self-reported use-of-force statistics in public reports to the Edmonton Police Commission.
She also noted that ASIRT oversees instances of serious injury or death relating to police actions, and that EPS "has never had a criminal use of force application that resulted in the death of an individual. The Edmonton Police Service is proud of this fact as it is stark testimony to the professionalism, skill, and restraint of our men and women in service."
Edmonton cases are wide ranging
The circumstances of the 39 EPS-involved deaths run the gamut from officers returning gunfire, to the use of conducted-energy weapons, to the death of unarmed people suffering a mental health crisis like Chiasson.
In two-thirds of cases, the highest level of force used by EPS was gunshot, lower than the national average of 73 per cent.
The second most common type of force used by Edmonton police was restraint, seen in 21 per cent of cases where the person died — higher than the national figure of 14 per cent.
In 2014, a 32-year-old man with a behavioural disorder named Trevor Proudman died after EPS officers left him unattended on his side in a police van with his hands cuffed behind his back. Proudman had a rare genetic disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome, which is linked with obesity and behavioural issues.
Normally, ASIRT investigates in-custody deaths, but the provincial justice ministry faced criticism after handing the criminal investigation of the Proudman case to EPS. The case concluded without charges for EPS officers, though its policy on leaving arrestees unattended was revised.
In a case from February 2022, police pursued a suspect in a liquor store armed robbery who fled on foot.
When the suspect, 36-year-old Mitchell Tyler Potts, was shot and killed, a man in a nearby apartment, 59-year-old James Hanna, was struck by an errant bullet and died.
Of the 39 Edmonton deaths, only one involved a woman.
In 2010, EPS officers responded to a 9-1-1 hang-up call and encountered 48-year-old Bernadette Auger in the stairwell of an apartment building.
She pointed what was later determined to be a toy gun painted black, and the officers retreated outside and called for backup.
When Auger emerged, several officers had assembled including at least two with carbine rifles and a police dog.
When she pointed the toy gun at officers again, she was shot and killed.
Auger's blood alcohol level was found to be three times the legal limit, compounding the sedative effects of her prescription medication.
Police were cleared by ASIRT in her death.
Criminal charges against police are rare
ASIRT was formed in 2008 with the intention to hold police agencies accountable for misconduct. But charges for criminal use of force for on-duty EPS officers are still rare.
No EPS officer has ever been criminally charged for a use-of-force death while on duty.
Oriola says the reasons for an increase in police-involved deaths, from culture to oversight and accountability, are complex and deeply rooted, complicating efforts at reform.
ASIRT, the organization primarily tasked with holding police accountable, has a years-long backlog and has been criticized for using former and current police officers to investigate police misconduct.
McClelland is clear that the intention of Tracking (In)Justice is to facilitate a repository of public information, not to draw conclusions or advocate for particular solutions.
"I invite Canadians to start trying to work on answering: What's going on here? What's the problem?" he says.
"Previously we weren't even able to ask that question. And that's one of the basic things our website wants to do, is put out into the world this information, so people can start asking important questions."
For family members of the deceased in these cases, accountability can feel lacking. The police involved in Yvon Chiasson's death were cleared of wrongdoing.
His mother filed a civil action in February against EPS, AHS and the individuals officers and hospital staff "personally involved" in Yvon's death. She is seeking $1 million in punitive damages.
For Pamela Ripi Allivellatore, the trauma of losing her husband at the hands of the police stays with her.
She says Yvon told her during an earlier mental health crisis: "'If you call the police, you won't see me again.'"
Her own views about EPS and the "limitations" of its officers have shifted after his death.
"If someday I need to call them, I would think twice," she says.
"This situation shows they are not prepared [to] protect somebody that is vulnerable. If I am vulnerable, I'm not going to call the police."