Unfair and lacking common sense is how Police Chief Adam Palmer has described the provincial government’s continued practice to investigate police officers in B.C. for attempting to resuscitate a person in need of medical assistance who has suffered serious harm or dies.
Palmer told the Vancouver Police Board Thursday the Independent Investigations Office has opened recent investigations of police officers who have performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation, commonly known as CPR, on people requiring medical help.
Firefighters, paramedics and the public do not face the same scrutiny if they perform CPR on a person who dies, said the chief, who told reporters after the police board meeting that officers are hesitant to provide medical help or administer naloxone to overdose victims because of the possibility of an investigation.
“We just don’t think it’s fair,” the chief told the board, but assured members that officers will intervene if they are the only emergency personnel on scene. “If they’re trained or not, they’re going to try and help that person. We have good people. They’re not going to sit there and watch somebody perish. We’ll always try and help, but the way the current situation is set up is definitely not ideal.”
Palmer clarified none of his officers has faced an investigation for providing medical help but said he knows of others in B.C. who are under investigation. He didn’t name the police departments or the cases but said it is “a huge issue in British Columbia right now.”
Unlike rural jurisdictions in B.C., he said Vancouver police officers are less likely to be the only emergency responder first on scene because of the city’s geography and the ability for firefighters and paramedics to quickly respond to a person requiring medical help.
The issue surfaced Thursday after board member Carolyn Askew questioned whether more Vancouver police officers should be trained in CPR. Askew raised the question after reading a VPD report that updated the board on a coroner’s inquest that recommended CPR training should be mandatory for Vancouver officers.
The inquest was held in January into the death of Cheryl Ann Cowan, whom police arrested in December 2014 for “causing a disturbance” at a family member’s house. Police put Cowan in a prisoner wagon and at some point during the 24-minute trip to jail, she went unconscious.
Police did not intervene but nurses, jail staff, a doctor and firefighters responded to the 58-year-old woman, who regained a pulse after treatment from paramedics. She died eight days later in St. Paul’s hospital. The cause of death was “severe anoxic brain injury due to a cardiac arrest,” according to a report completed by the Independent Investigations Office.
The VPD does not have an exact count of how many officers are trained in CPR, but it is in the hundreds. Some officers were recently trained, some learned the skill in jobs before becoming a police officer and others were trained out of personal interest.
The VPD report before the board Thursday indicated 191 officers qualified to use a Taser are also trained in CPR and how to use an automated external defibrillator. Another 175 officers completed CPR training in 2013 and many senior officers, including Palmer and his deputy chiefs, were taught CPR when they first entered the police academy. The training is no longer mandatory at what is now called the Justice Institute of B.C., but there is discussion in police circles about adding it back to the curriculum.
More than 400 VPD officers are trained in how to administer naloxone, the drug making news in Vancouver that is used by paramedics, firefighters and the public to prevent an overdose drug victim from dying. The training is mandatory for VPD officers but carrying a naloxone kit is not. So far, the chief said, none of his officers has used naloxone on a person.
Citing Palmer’s concerns about officers investigated by the investigations’ office, Askew said that would be a reason to not provide CPR training for more officers. She also raised the concern of legal action brought against officers and the department.
“So I’m just putting my hand up and saying, ‘Why would we go down that trail?’” she said.
Marten Youssef, acting director of public engagement and policy for the Independent Investigations Office, confirmed the agency has investigated officers for using CPR and administering naloxone to people who have died. Youssef didn’t have a count when contacted Friday but said in all cases -- including one last week in Surrey related to an overdose drug death -- the agency found no wrongdoing and turned the file back over to the police department where the incident occurred.
The Independent Investigations Office opened in September 2012 with the mandate to investigate police in cases in which a person died or was seriously harmed during an altercation or arrest. VPD officers have been investigated several times for cases related to shootings and use of force, with the majority ending with the agency’s chief civilian director concluding there was no wrongdoing on behalf of officers.
Youssef said the agency is preparing a policy that it will circulate to police leaders, police boards and community organizations with an interest in justice issues to seek input and clarify when police are obligated to report incidents under the Police Act to the Independent Investigations Office.
“I’m pretty confident that once the police get to see the policy that I think they will look at it and say, ‘Yes, this is exactly what we want,’” he said. “Our hope is that by early next week, this [policy] will be implemented.”
Youssef pointed out the Independent Investigations Office is obligated to investigate all files that police report to the agency. He wouldn’t comment on whether police agencies are over-reporting when it comes to a straight-up emergency case where CPR or naloxone was administered.
The concerns raised by Palmer come at a time that Vancouver and other areas of the province are seeing an unprecedented number of overdoses and overdose drug deaths. The B.C. Coroners Service reported there were 622 drug deaths between January and October this year, with 124 of those recorded in Vancouver.
Mayor Gregor Robertson, who doubles as chairperson of the police board, said he doesn’t think the Independent Investigations Office should investigate officers who administer CPR or naloxone. The mayor told reporters after the police board meeting that “it’s not fair and hopefully it can be resolved. It’s intense and tragic on our streets right now.”
RCMP Sgt. Annie Linteau said in an email to the Courier that RCMP officers continue to report instances to the Independent Investigations Office where medical assistance or life-saving efforts were provided, despite a person suffering serious harm or dying.
"While we support independent investigations to determine whether our police officers have committed a criminal offence, we share the concerns expressed by other B.C. police departments that life-saving measures are distinguishable and are provided by other first responders without similar consequences," Linteau said. "This issue is among a number of areas that the RCMP has raised with the [Independent Investigations Office] and the new interim civilian director and we look forward to a resolution that keeps within the spirit and intent of the [agency]."
The Ministry of Justice emailed a statement to the Courier Friday that said: "The [agency's interim] director has advised that the IIO is developing a policy directive that, where officers are acting as or with first responders, and death or serious harm occurs, the police will not be required to notify the IIO, unless the incident involved use of force. It is the understanding of the ministry that the IIO will be meeting with police services to consult with them and receive their input on the policy."
Douglas King, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, said the Independent Investigations Office should stop investigating police officers who use CPR to attempt to save a person’s life, unless the circumstances leading up to such a situation is related to use of force.
“It’s taking the letter of the law and the technicality of the law a little bit too far,” he said.
King said all VPD officers should be trained how to administer CPR and the department should stop making excuses for not making the training mandatory for its officers. He said the VPD was originally concerned that officers could be sued for negligence and that excuse has been replaced by concerns about being investigated by the Independent Investigations Office.
“If you’re going to train somebody to have the power and the ability to injure somebody the way the police do, you should also train them in the ability to possibly prevent a person from dying,” King said. “What I’m worried about is it’s more about the VPD just not wanting to spend the money to train all its officers to become certified in CPR.”
Note: This story has been updated since first posted.