The family of an Indigenous girl who was severely injured after a fall from a bridge is deeply concerned about a decision of the police watchdog.
The Independent Investigations Office of BC released a decision on March 24 that a Chase RCMP officer had not committed an offence in the minutes leading up to the incident.
The IIO is a civilian-led police watchdog that investigates deaths or serious harm that may have resulted from the actions of a police officer.
According to the document outlining the IIO decision, Chase RCMP received a call on the non-emergency line about noon on Oct. 2, 2020. The caller said a young Indigenous female had thrown herself in front of a vehicle on Pine Street. The officer went to look for her, found someone who appeared to match the description and spoke to her.
The description had included the detail that she was wearing socks but no shoes.
The officer got out of his car and spoke to her. The girl told him to ‘f— off’ and walked away. The interaction lasted less than a minute. The officer then drove back to the RCMP detachment.
Five minutes later, police received a 911 call from a witness who had seen a girl fall from the nearby Pine Street Bridge.
When the 16-year-old girl, who survived but suffered devastating injuries, was interviewed by the IIO, she told them she had first tried unsuccessfully to drown herself in a creek, before jumping in front of the vehicle. The report said none of the witnesses mentioned the girl’s clothing appeared wet. Her mother told the IIO her clothes were still wet hours later.
The central question asked in the IIO investigation was whether the officer failed in his duty to protect the girl by leaving without taking further action.
The IIO’s conclusion stated, in part: “It could be said that prudence might have suggested to the officer that he should follow AP (affected person; ie the girl), attempting to ‘keep an eye on’ her, but that was neither what she wanted, nor what he was duty-bound to do. It is reasonable to assume, further, that AP would have waited until SO (subject officer) left before going to the bridge railing and climbing over it.”
Regarding that IIO assumption, in a family statement issued March 25 the family said they saw the assumption as an attempt to “somehow mitigate the failure of the officer to properly intervene, assist and protect the girl.”
Due to privacy the girl’s family did not wish to speak, but family friend Michelle Good issued the statement about the IIO report on their behalf.
“She was soaking wet. She was in her sock feet. There was evidence available to the officer she may have already attempted suicide by jumping in front of the vehicle on Pine Street.”
Good said the officer should have noticed she was wet.
The family statement pointed to the high rate of on-reserve Indigenous suicide in Canada, especially the sky-rocketing rate for youth, something anyone must or should know, especially a member of the RCMP.
It also noted that police are empowered under the BC Mental Health Act to apprehend and deliver someone to hospital if they are demonstrating a likelihood to harm themselves or others.
“He failed to take sufficient time – anything over a minute – to consider his jurisdictional options in what was obviously a case where protection was needed,” the statement reads.
The family also said the IIO report described the officer as being ‘affected emotionally,’ as if the feeling mitigated the deep and lasting harm that resulted.
The family statement referred to a “deeply disheartening” conversation in the IIO report between the officer involved and a second officer after the 911 call came in, during which the second officer immediately asked if the girl was drunk.
The IIO document said the first officer explained he had spoken to the girl because she fell in front of a vehicle. The second officer said: “Oh, she’s like drunk? Like drunk, fell in front or threw herself in front of… or just collapsed?”
The first officer said the caller didn’t know if the girl was playing around.
The family statement noted the family requested a toxicology screen at the hospital, which returned negative.
Overall, the family statement pointed to systemic racism, unconscious bias and a profound failing on the part of the officer to protect the girl.
“The family is considering its options, sickened that even after the CRCC (Civilian Review and Complains Commission for the RCMP) report on the (Colten) Boushie matter, no improvement is noted or in sight.”
Asked about concerns, Sgt. Barry Kennedy of Chase RCMP backed the findings of the IIO.
Regarding the Mental Health Act, he said the officer “determined that the female was presenting as competent and therefore no detention was made.”
He also said there was no correlation between the officer mentioning ‘being drunk’ and the girl being Indigenous; the officer was simply asking why the girl fell in front of the vehicle.
Natalie Clark, chair of the School of Social Work and Human Service at Thompson Rivers University, is recognized as an expert in the area of healing from violence and trauma with children, youth, their families and communities. She is part of the Secwépemc community, a trauma counsellor at the Neskonlith Education Centre, grew up in Chase and later returned to the community.
She also spoke to the IIO report.
She said she views the phone call as a request for a type of wellness check.
“If they can’t respond in a way a caring citizen would respond, we have a pretty broken system.”
She listed several possible alternatives, including making contact with mental health, a social worker, family, the bands or perhaps an ambulance. Not just by police but by any witness who saw the girl. She said she would hope, if this was her child, that any citizen would act in a culturally safe and trauma-informed way (acting as if the person is likely to have a history of trauma).
She said even if a youth was drunk or high, all the more reason to ensure they’re safe.
Clark noted there are present-day and historical reasons why there is Indigenous distrust of police, social workers and mental health workers, which include intergenerational trauma from residential schools.
She said a lot of recommendations to do with policing can be found both in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women report and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action.
Clark said Vancouver police have acknowledged the systemic racism.
To her, reading the IIO report was the same as any other, she said, with it focusing on an individual instead of endemic racism.
“This is systemic. It happens every single day, in moments like this.”