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Friday, February 15, 2008

Alcohol, drugs main causes of in-custody deaths: RCMP

February 16, 2008
CBC News

An internal RCMP report obtained by CBC News shows 80 people died while in police custody between 2002 to 2006, the majority due to alcohol intoxication or drug overdoses. The 100-page report, written in December 2007, is the RCMP's most comprehensive analysis of in-custody deaths and presents statistics ranging from the reason police got involved in the first place to where the death occurred.

"The majority of subjects died at the scene of a complaint, which was most commonly a disturbance or drunk in public place call, or in a hospital within 30 minutes of initial contact with the police," the report says. "The leading cause of death was alcohol or drug overdose."

Of the 80 people who died in police custody, most were men over the age of 30 who had been using drugs or alcohol and had a criminal record.

The report's author, a staff sergeant with national criminal operations, called the report "good news for the RCMP," because in 2006 none of the 15 deaths could have been prevented, as those people had put themselves in situations where "their decisions resulted in their deaths."

However, the report's assessment brings little comfort to Linda Bush of Houston, B.C. On Oct. 29, 2005, rookie Const. Paul Koester shot her son, Ian, in the back of the head while he was in police custody at the RCMP detachment in Houston. Bush, a 22-year-old sawmill worker, was arrested for having an open beer outside a hockey game and for giving a false name to police. He was taken to the local police detachment where he died 20 minutes later.

"I think the RCMP are making some wrong choices in excusing themselves here and not making more of an effort to change what's happening," Linda Bush told CBC News.

Vancouver lawyer Cameron Ward, who has represented a number of families whose relatives died in police custody, said the RCMP report is flawed because it only focuses on the victims and does not take into account the age of the officers involved or their experience with the force.

"I see this report perhaps as an attempt by the RCMP to fend off the critics and those who say that a higher level of civilian oversight and civilian investigation in these cases is necessary," Ward said.

Tom Engel, an Alberta lawyer who represents families of people who have died in police custody, also has doubts about the validity of the report. "[It's] just so superficial. It's useless," Engel said. "Something like this to me can only be useful to the RCMP in terms of public relations."

Ward said while British Columbia is home to a third of the RCMP members in Canada, it's the source of more than half of all in-custody deaths. "We've got a death rate here in B.C that's about twice as high as it ought to be statistically," he said.

The RCMP declined an interview request by CBC News, but in a written reply noted that B.C.'s in-custody death rate is due to the fact that police work is more urban in the western province compared to other provinces. "The type of police work in B.C. is heavily urban-focused, compared to the predominantly rural policing that goes on in the other provinces in RCMP jurisdiction," Sgt. Sylvie Tremblay, an RCMP spokeswoman from Ottawa, said in her written reply. "Crime is logically more pronounced in urban centres than in rural areas. The majority of the deaths were related to high-risk lifestyles involving alcohol and drugs," she said.

The report said the RCMP will continue to examine the circumstances of each in-custody death. "The aim is to learn whether the acts or omissions, if any, of its members or the equipment/facilities and procedures played any role in the incident," says the report. "The RCMP finds itself in a difficult position of dealing with intoxicated or stoned individuals," the report concludes.

"Hospitals are generally reluctant to admit persons until and unless there are definite symptoms of toxicity that would necessitate medical intervention."

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