Toronto police chief warns of 'opportunists,' 'misinformation' after woman's fall from highrise

Toronto's police union is raising concerns over "opportunistic" comments posted on social media in the wake of the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet. The 29-year-old's family said in the hours after her death they believed police pushed her from a highrise balcony.

What began as a 911 call for help ended in the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, 29, mother says

What happened inside the Regis Korchinski-Paquet's apartment after her family called 911 for help is still unclear. Ontario's police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, is looking into the incident. (Regis Paquet/Facebook)

UPDATE: This story has developed since it was first published. Click here for the latest. 

Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders urged calm in the wake of Regis Korchinski-Paquet's death, warning of an information "vacuum" faced by police that risks being filled by "opportunists."

Saunders spoke to reporters Friday about some of the issues that have been raised in the case of the 29-year-old woman who fell to her death from a Toronto highrise Wednesday while police were on scene.

"A lot of it is misinformation, a lot of it is lies," Saunders said, emphasizing police are legally bound from speaking about cases while investigations by the Special Investigations Unit, Ontario's police watchdog, are underway.

The comments followed similar remarks Friday from Toronto's police union, which raised concerns over "opportunistic" comments posted on social media in the wake of Korchinski-Paquet's death that it says "sensationalize this tragic event with blatant disregard for evidence or fact."

The 29-year-old's death sparked widespread community reaction and online attention when her cousin and mother took to social media after she fell to her death from an apartment balcony Wednesday, claiming she was pushed by police.

In the days after those comments, the family's lawyer later said it is "waiting on evidence from the investigation before any further conclusions can be made."

Lawyer Knia Singh added that statements made prior to May 28 are not part of the official Korchinski-Paquet statement.

In the statement released Saturday, Singh said when police arrived and spoke with Korchinski-Paquet, her brother and mother, there was no knife present and no assault taking place.

"The family strongly believes that Regis' death could have been prevented," the statement reads in part.

No family members were inside the unit at the time of Korchinski-Paquet's death and it's unclear if anyone witnessed her death. The Special Investigations Unit is looking into investigating the case and has called for anyone with information about the allegations to contact them.

Still, calls for an impartial and independent investigation have quickly gathered steam from community advocates, the family, and from various politicians, including some city councillors. The police union took issue with the councillors' public comments in a statement Friday. 
Lawyer Knia Singh led the news conference on behalf of Korchinski-Paquet's family as her mother, brother and sister stood by. (CBC)

"Unfounded allegations that police officers pushed a woman to her death from a balcony, in the absence of evidence or fact, perpetuate a false narrative that the police are the enemy," the Toronto Police Association said in a statement signed by its president, Mike McCormack, and its board of directors.

"We are aware that this narrative, speculating on the events leading to Ms. Regis Korchinski-Paquet's death is circulating on mainstream and social media. We are deeply disturbed by this and disappointed that some of Toronto's elected city councillors choose to participate in the discussion during an active SIU investigation."

The statement goes on to call for citizens to "refrain from a rush to judgment," saying "unfounded rhetoric is damaging to the community and the police."

'I asked the police if they could take my daughter to CAMH'

As controversy around Korchinski-Paquet's story swirled, her family gathered for a news conference Thursday outside the highrise where they say she lay dead for some five hours before her body was retrieved. A growing memorial of flowers and signs reading "Rest in Power" could be seen nearby.

Korchinski-Paquet was an active member of her church, a talented gymnast and proud of her Ukrainian and Nova Scotian roots, her family's lawyer said Thursday.

There's no way I would put a nurse in the middle of a knife fight.- Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders

But in the past five years, she began experiencing epilepsy, and the family sometimes required help from police, Singh said. 

In a statement through their lawyer, the family said it was Korchinski-Paquet's mother who called 911 on Wednesday afternoon after a family conflict that left the 29-year-old in a state of "distress." 

"I asked the police if they could take my daughter to CAMH, and my daughter ended up dead," said Claudette Korchinski​​​​-Beals, referring to Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Korchinski-Paquet, her brother and mother met police in the hallway of their 24th-floor apartment. "Words were exchanged" between her and police. Not long afterward, she said she had to use the bathroom. Police went into the unit with her but did not allow her mother or brother to enter, Singh said. 

Within a minute or two, Singh said, the family heard commotion. Then, they heard Korchinski-Paquet cry out, "Mom help. Mom help. Mom help." 
What began as a 911 call for help for Korchinski-Paquet ended in her death, her mother Claudette Korchinski-Beals told reporters at a news conference on Thursday. (CBC)

The family has said race may have played a role in Korchinski-Paquet's death.

"The family is extremely concerned that in recent times, people with mental health distress issues across North America are ending up dead after interactions with the police," Singh said Thursday.

    No mobile crisis intervention team sent to scene

    Toronto's police chief revealed Friday police did not dispatch a mobile crisis intervention team to the scene after what Korchinski​​​​-Beals said was a call for help. A mobile crisis intervention team consists of a nurse paired with an officer for secondary response to calls concerning people in emotional distress.

    One paramedic was on the scene, he said. 

    The chief said police received three 911 calls for an assault, with at least two of the calls saying a knife was involved.

    Weapons-related calls take the highest priority, Saunders said, adding front-line officers respond to them first. 

    "There's no way I would put a nurse in the middle of a knife fight," Saunders said.

    The chief didn't say if any of the 911 calls referenced mental health, but did say there was some discussion about seizures. 

    'Too soon' to confirm or deny claims on social media: SIU

    Police emerged from the unit and told the family Korchinski-Paquet had either gone to a neighbouring unit or to a unit below, said Singh. They asked if she was on the ground. Police re-entered the unit and confirmed she was dead.

    Toronto police have not disclosed information about what happened because the SIU is now involved. On Thursday, Saunders said police are not "legally permitted to discuss the incident at this time."

    The SIU is an arm's-length agency that investigates reports involving police where there has been death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault. The oversight body said in what is now its latest news release, issued Friday, that it has interviewed four of the five officers who may have witnessed the incident, with a subject officer also set to be interviewed soon. 

    The agency also said it examined the scene, canvassed for video and witnesses and have spoken to "several civilians who were able to shed some light on what happened." A post-mortem examination has also been completed. 
    A memorial is growing outside 100 High Park Dr., where Korchinski-Paquet apparently fell to her death. (Grant Linton/CBC)

    It goes on to say it's "too soon" to confirm or deny any information being circulated in the public domain.The statement does not explicitly state whether any security footage was gathered, such as video footage from a camera in the hallway referenced by the family's lawyer.

    In their statement Thursday, family members emphasized its hope that that video be preserved as part of the investigation.

    'Black Ontarians must be able to call for help without fear'

    Saunders made a similar plea Thursday, saying, "I'll urge the public to please wait for the facts to come out."

    He also said he feared a narrative created out of "misinformation" while the investigation unfolds.

    Still, calls are growing to ensure the investigation is in fact independent, with one online petition drawing more than 24,000 signatures so far calling for transparency and accountability for any officers found to be involved. 
    Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders spoke to reporters in what was an unusual appearance during a police watchdog investigation, shedding light on some details surrounding Korchinski-Paquet's death. (Cole Burston/Canadian Press)

    Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam on Twitter commented Thursday, "Every time the SIU gets involved, the same concerns always come to mind. How can families and the public be assured accountability and transparency?"

    Coun. Gord Perks, who represents the area where the incident took place, tweeted: "I will be watching the @SIUOntario closely. Her family deserves answers, as do we all."

    Meanwhile, at least two members of Ontario's New Democratic Party have sent a letter to the province's solicitor general echoing calls for a "completely independent investigation."

    "Regis Korchinski-Paquet's death is not an isolated incident but part of pattern of Black deaths in our province," the letter says, citing the case of a young black man fatally shot by Peel police in April. According to his family, D'Andre Campbell suffered from mental health issues.

    "Black Ontarians must be able to call for help without fear for their lives."