The BC Civil Liberties Association among other groups, including the family of Haida Elder Jimmie Johannesson, have issued “Calls to Action” five months after Johannesson was shot dead by the Surrey RCMP during a wellness check in Whalley on April 8.
Beside his family and the BCCLA, Pivot Legal Society, #Justice for Jared and The Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) are among the coalition.
Johannesson’s sister, Ruby Marks, was not available for comment.
She and Laura Holland, founder of Justice for Jared, sent a letter to B.C. Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth and federal Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino on Sept. 8 concerning Johannesson’s last minutes as well as recommendations intended to prevent such a death from happening again.
“Elder Jimmie called police that morning out of concern that he was a danger to himself. In response to this Elder’s call for help, the Emergency Response Team (whose officers wear military-style uniforms) and armed RCMP Officers were dispatched and surrounded his home,” their letter reads. “The RCMP’s lack of training around mental health, de-escalation and safe disarming techniques then saw them opening fire in his home where Jimmie was shot in the arm, leg, and twice in the heart. What began as a desperate cry for help ended in a senseless tragedy at the hands of the state when Jimmie was pronounced dead at the hospital.”
Surrey RCMP Const. Sarbjit Sangha, a spokeswoman for the detachment, told the Now-Leader on Thursday that because “this matter is under independent investigation which we need to respect,” that “it would not be appropriate to comment on the BCCLA/UNBCIC release in advance of the conclusion of the investigation.”
The letter calls on the two levels of government to eliminate police involvement in wellness checks and “reallocate resources to a peer-led mental health emergency response team trained in de-escalation and professional mental health professions whose practices are rooted in and informed by the community, all while prioritizing crisis support and care for the distressed person or family.”
Moreover, among other related recommendations, the coalition calls for the end of police checks – maintaining that street checks “outside of an investigation” are discriminatory and violate people’s privacy, exposing individuals “to further surveillance and potential criminalization” – and for government to establish “explicit, sanction-backed legal duties” for police to cooperate with the Surrey-based police watchdog Independent Investigations Office (IIO, and for police and the IIO to “safeguard evidence.”
The coalitions is also calling on government to “recruit Black and Indigenous investigators with knowledge of the lived experiences of these racialized communities, for the IIO to appoint an Indigenous Civilian Monitor, or a separate board of Indigenous Civilian Monitors, “to oversee each investigation where an Indigenous person is identified as a victim or affected party in an incident of death, serious harm, or reportable injury,” to restrict firearm possession to a small percentage – ie., less than five per cent”– specifically and highly trained officers, and make mandatory a policy for body cameras to be worn by all municipal, provincial and federal police officers at all times when on duty.
“You each have significant influence and legal authorities at your disposal to constrain police and augment civilian oversight mechanisms,” Marks and Holland told the politicians. “We ask you to use your authority without delay as each day passes where another life is taken, distrust of police organizations grows and communities are left torn and broken by the lack of accountability, community safety and care for its citizens.”
On the call to eliminate police involvement in wellness checks, asked what happens if police aren’t on scene to protect mental health workers if a person produces a weapon, Mara Selanders, staff counsel (community) for the BCCLA, told the Now-Leader on Thursday that “there are people with greater skills at de-escalation than the police currently possess, that are able to de-escalate a situation that might mean that the person who did have the weapon has no reason to use it in the end.
“So that’s kind of the main focus is looking to greater skills at de-escalation and actually managing the situation,” Selanders said. “Often the police, whether by their mere presence or by the way they handle a situation, that escalates it to the point that weapons are actually used. That’s what we’ve seen, time and again.
“We’ve seen time and again that the situations often escalate beyond what they ever needed to be in the first place,” Selanders added, “because police do not have those same skills that a lot of front-line healthcare and mental health workers possess.”
As for the IIO’s investigation into the police’s role in Johannesson’s death, she noted, “the investigation is still open and ongoing. No conclusions on that front.”