When police showed up, Belfon was alone inside his first floor apartment. Witnesses say that he talked to officers through his window and that he was unarmed and non-violent. VicPD claims he refused to communicate throughout an “hours-long barricade” and was armed with “improvised weapons.”
Videos taken by neighbours show the amount of force used by police to eventually take Belfon into custody—an armoured truck, K9 unit, tear gas and pepper spray, and, ultimately, a plastic bullet.
The result: a month and a half-long hospital stay for Belfon, and the loss of his home.
What Michael remembers
It was Belfon’s day off from work as a janitor at Hillside Shopping Centre, and he was at home. His memory of the incident is foggy—he has schizophrenia and was in psychosis at the time—but he says he clearly remembers the conversation he had with officers through the window.
“Michael, we want to talk to you. Michael, could you open the door?” he recalls officers calling to him from outside.
“Well talk to me, the window is open,” he replied.
“Did you take your medicine Michael?”
“Yes, I took my medicine.”
“Michael, could you come out?”
VicPD officers spent about an hour talking to Belfon through the window or over the phone. He says they were trying to get him to leave his apartment.
“I didn't understand why I had to come out of the house when I saw what was outside—the tank and the guys displaying guns,” Belfon said. “It was a natural conversation like I’m talking to you … I never displayed any form of violence.”
Neighbours have corroborated the fact that Belfon had been talking to police, and confirmed that police were asking him to leave his apartment.
Eventually, after making it clear that he would not be leaving his apartment while surrounded by what neighbours described as a “militaristic” display of force, Belfon says he stopped replying to the officers.
That’s when, videos show, police climbed atop their armoured truck to reach and smash each of the three windows into Belfon’s apartment. They sprayed irritant gas inside, on and off for two hours, in an effort to smoke him out of the apartment.
Police did not specify whether the substance they used was tear gas, pepper spray, or both, but footage from the incident shows police both using canisters similar to tear gas and spraying gas from a bottle resembling pepper spray.
Belfon says he had to roll on the ground, crouch under his table, cover himself with a chair, and crawl to the bathroom to get away from the “bombardment” of gas. “The smoke inhalation was totally too much,” he said.
Eventually he opened his front door to escape the smoke. That’s when he says he was met by two VicPD officers in full gear who used a taser on his legs.
Belfon doesn’t remember anything after the tasing, but both police and witness accounts say police also shot him with a plastic bullet before taking him to the hospital. He suffered injuries to his eyes and lungs from the smoke, cuts all over his arms and legs from crawling on a floor covered with broken glass, and burns on his legs from being tased. Belfon also received psychiatric care while at Royal Jubilee Hospital.
The entire incident took five and a half hours. After he was taken into custody, Belfon was transported by ambulance to Royal Jubilee Hospital, where he stayed for a month and a half.
‘Damn near unbearable’
Jaclyn Morgan had just returned home from work and was making dinner for herself and her husband, Anthony, when the tear gas started seeping into their apartment. “It was horrible,” she said.
The Morgans live two floors above Belfon and have known him since they moved in about a decade ago. According to them, Belfon does forget his medication from time to time but has never had weapons or been violent.
“He comes off [his meds] every six months, I’d say” Jaclyn said. “We know he’s off them because he’ll leave his door open.”
“Sometimes he’ll throw things out the window. My truck sometimes will have his pants on my hood,” Anthony added, with a laugh. “Most of the time, he’ll just sing or yell out his window.”
Anthony described encountering Belfon in his own apartment after Belfon had left his door open during an episode.
“I had a conversation with him—it's hard to work around what he was trying to talk about, but it was manageable—and eventually, I got him to calm down and got him to eat something, and I went back upstairs,” Anthony said.
Neither knew why the police were called on Belfon on June 7, or what he had done to justify the amount of force used against him.
A video taken by neighbours that day shows the Morgans staggering out of their apartment after VicPD’s tear gas spread through the building, which had not been evacuated before they started spraying. Witnesses say officers spent about two hours, on and off, spraying the gas or throwing canisters into Belfon’s apartment.
“I’ve been in a lot of excruciating pain in my life. That was damn near unbearable,” Anthony said.
As top floor residents, the pair had to make it through two stairwells and hallways filled with smoky irritant gas before they could escape through the back door and get some fresh air.
The pair said they were looking into taking legal action or filing a complaint against the police department.
A conversation with VicPD
Evangelina “Vangie” McNally has known Belfon since she was two years old—she is now 30—and says he has had schizophrenia for as long as she remembers.
“Michael is like an uncle to me. He is part of my grandmother’s community in Grenada,” McNally said. “His illness makes up 1% of who he is.”
McNally recalled a day Belfon went over to their house while in psychosis. “He was convinced that there were certain things happening in the backyard of our place,” she said. “And my grandma calmly sat him down around our kitchen table and de-escalated him without any violence.”
She was shocked when she came across Capital Daily’s coverage of the incident.
“I'm born and raised in Victoria, and I've never seen this kind of police presence on the Island,” McNally said. “For one man to have all that [force] brought out for him is a clear display of racism, police brutality, and complete abuse of power.”
McNally decided to contact Victoria Police, and said she spoke to one of the officers who had responded to the call about Belfon.
“It was a quite aggravating conversation,” she said.
According to McNally, the officer refused to answer her questions about why the department answered a non-violent mental health call with an armoured vehicle and tear gas. She said the officer instead called the media report about the incident a lie—though he did not specify how—and argued that the media portrays police in a bad light.
McNally says she did not end up filing a complaint with the police department about the incident involving Belfon because of how this officer treated her on the phone.
“He basically just was trying to shut me up and get me off the phone quicker,” she said. “He actually said, ‘I'm not here to discuss or debate police tactics with you.’”
Over the past two months, Capital Daily has reached out to VicPD multiple times—in person, over the phone, and via email—with questions about how they handled Belfon’s case.
The department has not responded.
BC’s public safety minister declined to comment “as this matter remains under investigation,” they said in a statement to Capital Daily.
‘It grieves my heart’
Belfon found out he was evicted from his apartment at the end of July, and that his belongings were ruined by the gas and pepper spray. He went straight from the hospital to a supportive housing facility and, although the eviction was overturned after Belfon and his case worker at the hospital contested it, Belfon is now trying to find a new, permanent place to live while dealing with his new injuries, both physical and mental.
“I was devastated,” Belfon said. “I'm feeling a little bit better, but the trauma still remains the trauma. It's a great psychological impact on my normalcy, my routine.”
After two years of enduring loneliness and, as a result, worsening mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, Belfon was beginning to think that moving to Canada almost 30 years ago may have been a mistake.
His sisters have asked him to live with him in Grenada, and after what he calls a “near death experience,” Belfon is starting to consider it.
“That's the closest I've ever reached to death in a man-made way,” Belfon said. “I never expected to see a man … so unjust to a man, to escalate into that situation. It grieves my heart.”
McNally also considers it lucky that Belfon is still alive, and brought up the death of a man at the hands of VicPD last year.
In September 2021, a VicPD officer shot and killed a man who was suffering a mental health crisis and threatening to take his own life with a knife. In their community update, police describe him as an “armed man” and said he had stolen from a nearby liquor store.
But store management told CHEK News that while the man had come in and threatened to take his own life with a knife, he was not aggressive or threatening to staff, and that he left after being asked. Police have not corrected their original statement. The incident is still under investigation by the province’s civilian police oversight body.
“We need to take this situation,” McNally said, referring to Belfon’s case, “and look at what other resources we can have without calling the police, because the police don't help. It's not okay for the police department to show up, exacerbate the situation, and then ruin somebody's life.”
An alternative option to police for certain mental health calls will soon launch, as a pilot project, in Victoria. The Peer Assisted Crisis Team (PACT), composed of a peer worker and a mental health responder, is expected to hit the streets for one year starting next month. This response has the support of Victoria Police Chief Del Manak, who stated the need for new ways to approach mental health, addiction, and homelessness-related calls in 2020.
The one thing that has brought Belfon solace over the past two months is the support of loved ones, neighbours, and even strangers who heard about what happened to him.
While he was in the hospital, community members were busy collecting donations to help him get back on his feet—cash, packaged foods, gift cards— and creating petitions on his behalf. They held a rally in his honour, emphasizing the need for community members to support one another.
Belfon had no way of knowing about this swell of support for about a month, while he lay in the hospital with no cell phone, as his loved ones worked on locating his whereabouts. He was heartened when he found out.
“It was nice for everybody to help, in the apartment [building] and the community,” Belfon said. “At the moment, I want to live my life. I’ve been struggling. Now I see the light of day.”