In late June, a disturbing video of an RCMP interaction with a UBCO student came to light. The video showed nursing student Mona Wang handcuffed, on her stomach, and being dragged by her wrists by RCMP officer Cpl. Lacy Browning down a hallway, and at one point appearing to step on Wang’s head. Browning had been responding to a wellness check initiated by Wang’s boyfriend after he became concerned about her well-being when she stopped responding to texts on January 20, 2020.
In a lawsuit filed against Browning, the federal attorney general and provincial public safety minister, Wang states that the incident has caused her “emotional distress, humiliation, shame and embarrassment, psychological and emotional trauma” due to Browning’s “reckless and unlawful actions.”
Wang’s suit comes during a time of increased scrutiny of law enforcement after video emerged from the United States of George Floyd, a Black man, dying in police custody after repeatedly telling officers he could not breathe while white officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck, pinning him to the ground. Floyd’s death reignited Black Lives Matter protests around the United States, calling out systemic racism within law enforcement. As a result, countries around the world began protesting not only their own issues of police brutality but against policing institutions as a whole.
In the context of Canada, Wang’s video brings up two specific areas of discussion that will be examined in a two-part feature; the accountability of the RCMP and wellness checks. The first part, regarding the accountability of the RCMP, can be read here.
With respect to wellness checks, police services have rightfully come under scrutiny this year for the way they have responded to these calls from the community. Since spring, at least four people have died during wellness checks conducted by police.
In an analysis done by CBC, 461 people in Canada have died during police encounters since 2000. It was found that over 70 percent of these victims were suffering from mental health issues and substance abuse problems. The RCMP, the largest police force in the country and serve non-metropolitan communities, are responsible for 118 of those deaths.
Near the end of July, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) released a statement that condemned the RCMP for repeated uses of unreasonable force when dealing with individuals in crisis. They specifically highlighted comments made by the Braidwood Commission on Conducted Energy Weapon Use regarding the practice of “command and control” as being “inappropriate and counterproductive when dealing with emotionally disturbed people.”
The statement also included comments from the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health saying, “… people experiencing a mental health crisis need health care. Police should not be the first responders when people are in crisis in the community. Police are not trained in crisis care and should not be expected to lead this important work.”
In a 2020 report, the CRCC recommended that the RCMP “work with provincial and territorial partners to create appropriate health care-led response options to persons in crisis in the community.”
The conduct of Cpl. Browning toward Wang seen in the video released of the incident is incredibly concerning. Yet, were there other resources available in the Kelowna community that could have prevented Wang’s experience?
In 2017, the Kelowna RCMP partnered with Interior Health (IH) to create the Police and Crisis Team (PACT). This unit works as an enhanced community response to better address the needs of individuals who are experiencing a crisis involving mental health or substance use. On the night Wang’s boyfriend called the RCMP, PACT was not staffed due to only one full-time nurse being employed.
Following the RCMP’s wellness check on Wang, and before the CRCC released their statement, RCMP Southeast District Commander Chief Superintendent Brad Haugli stated that a review needed to be done from “a policy and training perspective” in regard to “mental health related calls, which include wellness checks.”
Haugi continued by saying wellness check calls needed to be evaluated by trained mental health workers and that the RCMP should act as support if deemed necessary. He added that the existing PACT programs in Kelowna and Kamloops should be expanded, as well as being created in other BC communities. A desire also shared by Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran.
However, despite funding being allocated by the City of Kelowna to the RCMP for PACT‘s expansion and an officer already assigned to partner with another nurse, IH has made no movement toward employing an additional nurse despite requests to do so since 2017. In a letter seen by local media outlet Castanet, Basran asked IH back in October 2017 to expand PACT.
“Having begun this innovative service less than one year ago, we can see that the volume of work that exists has already pushed the PACT members to the limits of their capacity to help more clients,” Basran wrote to IH Chair Doug Cochrane. “It is our hope Interior Health can find the resources to add more capacity to the program in 2018.”
IH says they have no record of a formal request by Basran being made.
In an April 2019 report to city council, city staff discussed the expansion of PACT and recommended the RCMP allocate another officer to the program and for IH to employ an additional nurse. Although IH staff were present when the report was given to city council and had reviewed the report themselves, no movement was made to provide a nurse to PACT.
After Haugi’s comments and the subsequent uncovering of multiple attempts to secure additional resources for IH to support the needed expansion of PACT, IH stated
at the beginning of July that they did not believe increasing support for PACT was the answer to the growing concern over the handling of wellness checks.
“That model isn’t, perhaps, the most effective use of that registered nurse’s time,” said vice-president for clinical operations for Interior Health Karen Bloemink. “It may be more effective to have that registered nurse embedded in a team-based model of service where the care is delivered in a proactive and an upstream way to, hopefully, have the preventative impact that we would like to see over the long term for individuals that have mental health needs.”
Bloemink continued by saying, “Right at this time, we aren’t committed to an expansion of the program because we need to, first, understand how we best increase access to supports for the population that needs it.”
By the end of August, IH was still no closer to providing the media, the City of Kelowna, or the RCMP any insight into how they plan on addressing community mental health concerns outside of the PACT program model.
“(IH) has advised that they currently do not have plans to add to the Kelowna PACT team, however I believe they are committed to helping improve the resource response to this segment of our population,” Kelowna city manager Doug Gilchrist said in an email to infonews.ca. “What that improved response is, I don’t yet fully understand. We do have a planned meeting in the next month with (IH) and the RCMP, which in part, will help us understand one another’s perspective-preference on how best to respond to these street-level issues.”
“It is important for all stakeholders such as Interior Health, the RCMP, wrap-around service providers, and local and provincial government representatives to be at the table to come up with the best solutions for their community regarding operations, including wellness calls,” Member of Parliament for Kelowna-Lake Country, Tracy Gray, said in a statement to The Phoenix News. She stated that she often speaks to first responders who are receiving an increase in calls regarding mental health and additional concerns.
Unfortunately, the disturbing video released of Wang’s interaction with Cpl. Browning has not spurred a sense of urgency within IH to prioritize finding these solutions. When IH was asked by The Phoenix News about what they will do to address the needs of interior communities regarding mental health crises, IH Communications employee Susan Ducan explained that services, both existing and desired, were still being reviewed.
“We share a commitment to continue to work together with police and others on effective solutions for people who require urgent services,” Duncan said in a statement from October 1. “We must look at the whole picture, including the specific needs of the community and how to make the best use of available resources.”
Essentially, this means that, due to the lack of action taken by IH over the years, those who require urgent services within the Kelowna community will continue to wait for adequate resources to be made available for an unspecified amount of time. Until then, it appears that the Kelowna community will be made to rely on RCMP officers who are not properly trained in addressing mental health issues to conduct wellness checks, just as was the experience of Wang.