Policing
Investigative
In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.

‘What they did was violent’: Witnesses decry VicPD treatment of mentally ill Black man

Last week, police were called to check on Michael, a 61-year-old Black immigrant from Grenada. What neighbours saw contradicts police reports about what happened next.

By Brishti Basu
June 15, 2022
Policing
Investigative
In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.

‘What they did was violent’: Witnesses decry VicPD treatment of mentally ill Black man

Last week, police were called to check on Michael, a 61-year-old Black immigrant from Grenada. What neighbours saw contradicts police reports about what happened next.

By Brishti Basu
Jun 15, 2022
Police officers were back at the Quadra Village apartment building two days after the incident to follow up on their investigation. Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily
Police officers were back at the Quadra Village apartment building two days after the incident to follow up on their investigation. Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily
Policing
Investigative
In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.

‘What they did was violent’: Witnesses decry VicPD treatment of mentally ill Black man

Last week, police were called to check on Michael, a 61-year-old Black immigrant from Grenada. What neighbours saw contradicts police reports about what happened next.

By Brishti Basu
June 15, 2022
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‘What they did was violent’: Witnesses decry VicPD treatment of mentally ill Black man
Police officers were back at the Quadra Village apartment building two days after the incident to follow up on their investigation. Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily

Two days after the police incident, the sting of tear gas was still in the air in the narrow hallways of the Quadra Village apartment building.

Around back, a window with broken glass and ripped out blinds stand as external evidence of how Victoria Police officers responded to a call, on the afternoon of June 7, about a man experiencing a mental health crisis who they say was “reported to be at risk of becoming violent.” 

According to the official statement, the man barricaded himself inside an apartment, refused to talk to police and “comply with police direction,” and “encountered officers with improvised weapons.” They did not specify the nature of the weapons he allegedly confronted police with, but said the man did not surrender even after they shot him with an ARWEN plastic bullet. They forcibly took him into custody about five and a half hours after first arriving at the apartment. 

VicPD has not responded to Capital Daily’s requests for comment and clarification despite attempts to reach them over the phone, via email, and in person. 

@capitaldaily Police in Victoria, BC use irritant gas, plastic bullet & more in responding to mental health call about a 61 yr old Black immigrant #yyj #victoriabc #capitaldaily ♬ original sound - Capital Daily

Video credit: Jeff Wert and Brooke.

However, witnesses to the hours-long incident and neighbours who knew the man say the amount of force used by police—including an armoured tank, K9 unit, tear gas, and a loud distraction grenade—was disproportionate, and dispute some key claims VicPD made in their official statement. 

‘He was communicating in the beginning’

Marina Bochar was working from home that day, and had just gotten back from walking her dog at about 1:45pm when she noticed three or four VicPD vehicles arriving in the parking lot of the neighbouring building. After about 30 minutes, several more squad cars showed up, along with the department’s $320,000 armoured tank. Bochar estimates there were about 10 to 12 officers in total, plus a K9 unit that arrived later in the day. 

From her balcony, she could see officers surround the three windows into her neighbour, Michael’s, apartment. In her one year of living in Quadra Village, Bochar had seen Michael—a 61-year-old Black immigrant from Grenada—around the neighbourhood, and they’d had friendly, albeit brief, interactions in passing. 

“He was communicating with [police] in the beginning,” Bochar said, contrary to the department’s claims that the man had refused to talk to them entirely. Bochar says she saw him hanging out his windows trying to talk to police for about an hour. 

“It sounded to me like he was kind of speaking in and out of English and French. He has a French accent,” Bochar said. “They were trying to communicate with him and Michael seemed in distress, but at no point was he aggressive or violent, from my perspective.” 

Then, she saw Michael close his windows, and, at about 4pm, watched as police climbed atop their armoured vehicle to reach and smash each of the three windows. After breaking the windows, video of the incident shows police threw a canister inside. Bochar says she saw the police spray more gas inside, on and off for the next two hours, in their efforts to get Michael 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.

Three police officers sit on top of an armoured police vehicle. Photo: Marina Bochar

“It was wafting over to my balcony and my eyes were starting to burn,” Bochar said. “I had to go inside and shut my window.”

The gas had Bochar concerned for Michael’s safety, and she was left wondering why police didn’t try sooner to enter the building rather than using irritants for hours first. 

“They just kept yelling, ‘It's time to come out, Michael. Listen to the officers at the front door. They're here to help you out’ ... over and over,” she said. 

The broken window (second from the left), pictured two days after the incident.

The effects of the gas

One person, who lives in Michael’s building but declined to be identified, says the building was not evacuated when this happened, and other residents suffered from the gas themselves. 

The neighbour said he knows Michael as a nice, non-violent man who was sick and likely forgot his medicine, which could have led to a mental health episode that caused someone to call police. By the time officers arrived, Michael was inside his apartment. 

A third neighbour, Brooke, whose vantage point was similar to Bochar’s, said several people from upstairs units ran out of the building, vomiting from the effects of the gas. 

Brooke does not know Michael personally, but her balcony points directly at his windows. She has known him to have what looked like mental health episodes in the past, where he would yell something, usually unintelligible, out of his window. 

“It didn't seem dangerous and kind of just seemed like he's an older gentleman just living his life,” she told Capital Daily. “Sometimes you’ve got to scream at the sky, right?” Brooke found the level of force police used to be extreme. 

“I still don't know what he did to warrant any of that, even if it was a mental breakdown,” Brooke said. 

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Right before 7pm, five and a half hours into the response, Bochar, Brooke, and other neighbours saw Michael come to the window. He had taken his shirt off and Bochar says she could hear him singing, while Brooke says he was saying something. 

“He’s far enough away that if I’m not paying attention, I can’t understand him, so I don’t know if he’s speaking [English] with a really heavy accent or speaking in a different language,” Brooke said.

According to Brooke, he was holding a piece of paper in one hand, and a cylindrical mallet-like object in the other. “It didn't look like a weapon; it didn’t look like a hammer,” Brooke said. “It was almost like a plastic piece.”

About 30 seconds later, Brooke said she heard officers break down Michael’s door, shout at him to get down—which he was not doing. Bochar could also tell when police had entered Michael’s apartment from the front door. 

“I saw [Michael’s] back…and then heard the gunshot, saw him fall, and scream.” 

What she saw was officers entering his apartment, shooting Michael with a plastic bullet, and taking him into custody. About 20 minutes later, an ambulance arrived and took him to the hospital. As far as anyone knows—hospital staff refused to confirm or deny that he was there on Friday—that’s where he still is. 

Police officers were back at the Quadra Village apartment building two days after the incident to follow up on their investigation. Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily

Community support

The way police responded to Michael felt militaristic to Bochar. The neighbour who spoke to Capital Daily called it a “fascist environment” and said he now feels unsafe in his building due to the level of force used by police.

“What they did was violent,” Bochar said. “If someone is in crisis, the answer is not to tear gas them, it's to provide support and talk with that person.”

It’s a type of response typical of police departments, including VicPD, particularly when the person involved is unhoused or racialized. The gaps between police’s own reporting of their response to mental health calls and what witnesses observe has also been seen before.

For example, 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. 

Later, management at the liquor store told CHEK News that the man had come in, produced a knife, and threatened to take his own life, but 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. 

The current system, which calls for police to be the first point of contact for people experiencing a mental health crisis, has undergone much scrutiny over the past two years. Through a Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act, which recently released 11 recommendations that seek to overhaul policing in the province. A major component of this report is how police conduct mental health checks, and it calls for a response that incorporates varying levels of involvement from community and peer support workers. 

In the aftermath of Michael’s arrest and hospitalization, Bochar has been busy collecting donations—like packaged foods, cash, and a grocery store gift card—from neighbours and community members who witnessed or heard about what happened, and from Esquimalt Neighbourhood House Society. 

Marina Bochar collected donations from neighbours and community members to give to Michael upon his return from the hospital. Michael has not yet returned. Photo: Marina Bochar

She went to leave a note in Michael’s apartment building, asking that someone contact her or pass her phone number to Michael so she can bring him the care package once he’s back from the hospital. Inside his building, she encountered a neighbour who told her Michael had been evicted.

Capital Daily attempted to verify this by contacting the property manager in charge of the building. When asked whether Michael had been evicted, they said, “Until anything happens, I can’t say a thing right now.” 

In the absence of a response from VicPD, we asked Victoria Mayor and police board co-chair Lisa Helps whether there are any programs or funding in place to support those who experience harm or damage as a result of a police wellness check. 

“I don’t know,” Helps said. 

In other cases involving property damage by police across BC and Canada, individuals have largely shouldered the cost of damage inflicted during police responses.

contact@capitaldaily.ca

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‘What they did was violent’: Witnesses decry VicPD treatment of mentally ill Black man
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