Will RCMP constable’s death spark changes in approach to B.C.’s homeless population?

Click to play video: 'RCMP constable’s death may spark changes in approach to homeless population'
RCMP constable’s death may spark changes in approach to homeless population
WATCH: RCMP management is certain to review the death of Constable Shaelyn Yang in Burnaby and may change the way the force approaches people living in parks, according to a former police chief. Emad Agahi has the story. – Oct 20, 2022

As the investigation into the death of Burnaby RCMP Const. Shaelyn Yang continues, its eventual results could have an effect on the way first responders approach homeless and mental health calls.

Yang was fatally stabbed on Tuesday while responding to a call at a homeless man’s tent in a Burnaby park. Her accused killer, Jongwon Ham, remains in hospital with gunshot wounds.

Read more: RCMP constable stabbed in B.C. was 5th police officer killed in Canada in 5 weeks

Kash Heed, former B.C. solicitor general and former chief of the West Vancouver police department, said the death raises questions police across the province are now grappling with.

“The conversations are taking place in policing right now, they’re conversing on how they’re going to respond to these incidents to ensure that officer safety is paramount in dealing with these people,” he said.

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“Secondly, there’s going to be a review, a management review here of what occurred here from within the police agency, within the RCMP.”

Click to play video: 'Fallen officer Const. Shaelyn Yang honoured with procession'
Fallen officer Const. Shaelyn Yang honoured with procession

In Vancouver, police say safety protocols and training are already in place for addressing potentially dangerous situations, built on decades of experience with worsening homelessness and mental health crises.

Vancouver police spokesperson Sgt. Steve Addison said addiction, homelessness and mental health issues are not crimes, but that their complex interaction can often lead to safety issues.

“It’s a concern for us, the VPD, we have lots of experience dealing with encampments … and we take precautions as we’re responding to incidents,” Vancouver police spokesperson Sgt. Steve Addison said.

Read more: Suspect charged with first-degree murder in stabbing death of Burnaby RCMP officer

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“We know there’s an increased risk to our officers and there’s a volatility that exists within the encampments, so we certainly take steps to mitigate the volatility.”

Addison said “nothing will change” for the VPD in the wake of Yang’s death, and that police will continue to respond to calls as needed.

But Yang’s death specifically aside, there have been changes in the way calls to homeless campers are handled in the city.

The president of union representing park rangers told Global News that for some time now members have stopped opening unresponsive tents without help of police.

Click to play video: 'Suspect charged in death of Burnaby RCMP officer'
Suspect charged in death of Burnaby RCMP officer

Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services said it has also changed some policies recently in response to growing risks.

VFRS public information officer Capt. Matthew Trudeau said the department’s staff — from the overdose outreach to fire prevention teams — have sometimes been met with hostility and even weapons.

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“Not too long ago we did have a crew almost attacked with a machete inside a building — these are violent attacks and very serious, and these events highlight the extra need for precautions and situational awareness,” he said.

“Our numbers of inspectors who go into a building has increased just because of safety, where we would respond with one inspector now we’ll have two or three to certain areas just for increase of safety in numbers and having more eyes open.”

Read more: Thousands of first responders line streets to honour RCMP officer Const. Shaelyn Yang

Trudeau said crews responding to fire calls in the Downtown Eastside are routinely accompanied by police now both to control traffic and to ensure members’ safety.

Those changes, Trudeau said, were responses to the symptom of the growing number of mental health crises in the city. Addressing the root cause with more comprehensive mental health-care facilities, he said, will be critical.

It’s a perspective Heed shared, arguing the province needs to look at reopening the Riverview mental health hospital his own BC Liberal government closed in 2012.

“We need somewhere to institutionalize these people that have these severe mental health capacity issues. … to see what a modern-type Riverview would look like,” he said.

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“We need to do a full assessment on what’s out there and what we need to do it, and part of that is putting people in a facility where they are going to get the assistance they need — not just a 30-, 60- or 90-day facility. We’re looking at a continuum of care for people that have these severe mental health issues that lead to the behaviour we’re unfortunately we’re experiencing right now with the death of this officer.

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