Most people killed in encounters with Edmonton police have mental health problems

Between 2000 and 2017, 23 people died while interacting with Edmonton Police Service officers. Twenty-one of them had a mental illness or disability, a substance abuse problem, or both.

23 people died while interacting with Edmonton police between 2000 and 2017, according to data compiled by CBC

Trevor Proudman's mother, Maureen Harland, and brother, Richard Proudman, describe him as a sweet person who loved water slides and horror movies. (Phil Laplante/CBC)

This story is part of Deadly Force, a CBC News investigation into police-involved fatalities in Canada.

The mother and brother of Trevor Proudman, who died in 2014 after suffocating in the back of a police van, hope his death will bring change.

But they say they have lost their trust in police.

"They dodged a bullet," Richard Proudman said of the officers involved in his brother's death. "Those officers and those above them were not held accountable."

Trevor Proudman is one of 23 people who died while interacting with Edmonton Police Service officers between 2000 and 2017, according to a comprehensive database assembled by CBC.

Of the 23 victims, 21 had a mental illness or disability, a substance abuse problem, or both.

Proudman had Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes behavioural problems and obesity.

"Police need to learn how to deal with the special people in the world," said his mother, Maureen Harland. "Patience. Not so much, 'Got to arrest you and take you down.'"

'There's always the possibility of an unintended outcome'

4 years ago
Duration 2:11
Maureen Harland's son died after a police interaction. Retired criminologist Keith Spencer explains why deaths from such situations happen.

In Alberta, 79 per cent of the 71 deaths that occurred during police encounters between 2000 and 2017 involved people with mental health problems.

Keith Spencer, a retired University of Alberta criminologist, said the numbers reflect how the criminal justice system has become a substitute for proper mental health supports.

"As long as we insist on using police to try to handle people who are mentally ill or have social problems like addictions, I think it's very difficult to expect promising outcomes," said Spencer.

Edmonton police Chief Rod Knecht declined CBC's request for an interview. 

According to data gathered by CBC, this is the typical profile of a person who has died during an encounter with Edmonton police. (CBC)

Trevor Proudman's story

In November 2014, police were called after Trevor Proudman caused a disturbance at a medical clinic. They handcuffed the 32-year-old and placed him on his side in a police van, alone. 

When officers went to release Proudman 23 minutes later, he was unresponsive. He died in hospital the next day. 

A medical examiner determined that the cause of death was positional asphyxia, as a result of being restrained with his wrists handcuffed behind his back.

Harland thinks the outcome would have been different had the officers taken the time to properly assess her son's situation. 

"He might of been stomping around and cussing outside, but really, did you have to handcuff him and lock him up?" 

Maureen Harland and Richard Proudman don't understand why police officers cuffed and held Trevor Proudman in a police van, after he caused a disturbance at a medical clinic. (Phil Laplante/CBC)

She wants officers to be more compassionate with people who are mentally ill or have special needs.

"They need more training to deal with these people," Harland said. "They need to step back, look at the person and the situation and say, 'How can I handle this differently?' "

An internal investigation by Edmonton police cleared the officers of any wrongdoing in Proudman's death, a conclusion his brother cannot accept.

"Another person could die because they go about doing their job in the exact same way that they did previously," said Richard Proudman.

A different model

Spencer agreed that more training would help, but said police officers can't be expected to act as social workers. 

"We just keep going back to the same model," he said. "These are mental health issues, and as long as we respond to them from a criminal justice perspective, we're never going to get happy outcomes."

Spencer said people with mental illnesses, disabilities or substance abuse problems are not thinking rationally, and may not respond to police commands, creating an unpredictable situation.

"Police have to take into account, have to be ready, and have to anticipate that there could be an erratic response," said Spencer. "Because they are anticipating that, there's an extra level of tension in those cases."

He suggested that a mental health professional accompany officers during such calls to act as an intermediate between a mentally unstable person and the police. 

Retired criminologist Keith Spencer said more than half of the calls police respond to are non-criminal in nature. (Rod Maldaner/CBC)

The retired criminologist said mentally ill or disabled people are no longer institutionalized, yet lack supports in the community, making them more vulnerable to negative interactions with police. 

That vulnerability is a concern for Richard Proudman, who believes police officers were unnecessarily rough with his brother. 

"They don't have the same ability to advocate for themselves," said Proudman. "A lot of people have these preconceived ideas and they do treat them differently. And not necessarily in a more benevolent way."

Data compiled by CBC from police forces across Canada show that 23 people died during encounters with Edmonton Police Service officers between 2000 and 2017. (CBC)


Josee St-Onge


Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan.