Alberta’s police watchdog has concluded that the death of a 55-year-old woman in Edmonton police custody in the summer of 2017 was the result of a medical event.
On Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017, police were called to a report of an attempted suicide at the Belvedere LRT station. A young woman who was intoxicated by alcohol jumped onto the tracks and lay down, the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team said in a news release Monday.
The woman’s sister helped her back up to safety. When police arrived at the transit station, they found the young women and their 55-year-old mother “intoxicated to varying degrees.”
The woman who jumped onto the tracks was arrested for public intoxication and her sister was released on a promise to appear.
During this time, the women’s mother “wandered off,’ according to ASIRT. While police were dealing with the woman’s daughters, ASIRT said she made a 911 call falsely reporting the pair had been bear sprayed.
The 55-year-old was later found at the entrance to the LRT station “yelling and swearing at patrons as they exited the LRT station, and calling them pigs or saying they smelled like pigs.”
The woman was arrested and taken to the Edmonton Police Service’s northeast division where she was placed in a holding cell by herself. On the CCTV recording, she could be seen walking around without assistance.
“Her time in custody was uneventful,” ASIRT said in its findings.
Just after 8 p.m. that evening, the woman was booked into the EPS Detainee Management Unit pending a bail hearing. During intake screening, ASIRT said the woman admitted to drinking vodka coolers and said she had pre-existing medical conditions. However, the woman said she would not require medication or medical attention within the next 24 hours.
She denied taking any non-prescription drugs in the 24 hours before her arrest, ASIRT said.
Over the course of the night, the woman was in the cell with two other women. She was taken out for fingerprinting between 9:17 p.m. and 9:37 p.m.
A CCTV camera above the door to the cell captured the entire evening and found “all three women co-existed in the cell without incident,” ASIRT said.
Shortly after 7 a.m., a peace officer delivered breakfast to the woman. The officer asked if she wanted a sandwich but she declined.
“Nothing about the interaction suggested to the CPO that she was in medical distress, nor are signs of medical distress observed on video,” ASIRT said.
Shortly after 8 a.m., the woman tipped over while sitting on the floor. She continued moving while lying on the floor. ASIRT said it wasn’t clear from the video review if she was conscious, but her continued movement suggested she was likely breathing.
Just after 10 a.m., a peace officer conducted a cell search during which time the 55-year-old appeared to have laboured breathing. EMS crews were called and took the woman to hospital where staff said she had suffered a life-threatening brain bleed.
The woman died in hospital later that night.
An autopsy revealed the primary cause of the woman’s death was an acute hemorrhagic stroke. Methamphetamine use before her death and pre-existing medical conditions were also found to have contributed to her death. Toxicology testing detected low levels of methamphetamine and diazepam in her system, ASIRT said.
The police watchdog said investigators conducted a comprehensive and thorough investigation, which found no use of force by police. It also found all necessary prisoner checks were made and that all systems were functioning properly during the woman’s detention.
“The woman’s death was the result of a medical event that could have occurred anywhere, at any time, and there is no evidence to suggest that the care and supervision provided, which would meet the required reasonable standard of care, played any role in her death,” ASIRT said.
ASIRT’s executive director Susan Hughson said while repeated overview of the CCTV footage identified the most likely point when the woman’s stroke may have occurred, the changes were subtle and “could have been masked to the ordinary observer, exercising reasonable supervision, as consistent with intoxication and/or sleep.”
ASIRT is brought in to investigate any time an incident involving Alberta’s police officers results in serious injury or death to any person, as well as serious or sensitive allegations of police misconduct.