Care Not Criminalization: How the case of Bobbi O'Shea changed the way we look at our intoxication laws

Photo by Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press

When Bobbi O’Shea called for help while suffering an anxiety attack, she set off a chain of events that would forever change her life. Taken to jail and bound in a restraint device for over an hour, Bobbi left the Vancouver Jail angry and hurt. But because she refused to back down and continues to seek justice against the jail guards who harmed her, her perseverance could change how others in similar circumstances are treated.

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Seven years ago Vancouver police answered Bobbi’s call for assistance, but rather than take her to a hospital, they took her to jail. At trial last month in provincial court, where Bobbi is suing for damages, one of the officers testified that she was incarcerated because she admitted to drug use before the onset of the anxiety attack and because the Vancouver Detox, where people are sometimes taken for medical care, was closed at the time.

Inside the jail Bobbi asked repeatedly to be watched over by a female guard, but says her requests were ignored. When she tried to cover the window of the cell so she could use the toilet without being watched by the male guard, she was handcuffed and later placed in a restraint device known as the “hobble”.

The hobble device binds a prisoner’s feet together with a strap while they are seated on the floor with their legs outstretched. The strap is then pulled underneath the cell door and tethered on the other side. 


If you recognize the name “hobble” it might be because this isn’t the first time its use has come under scrutiny. In 2005 a Victoria teenager named Willow Kinloch was placed in a hobble restraint for four hours, that when revealed publicly caused widespread alarm and condemnation. Kinloch ultimately sued and was awarded $60,000 for her treatment

In Bobbi’s case, she testified that the device was tightened so much that she was placed in excruciating pain, and felt as if her feet were going to be ripped from her legs.


Not surprisingly, after Kinloch's lawsuit, the Victoria police department chose to discontinue the use of the hobble device in their jails. The Vancouver police have continued to use the device.

Last month the court heard final arguments (Claimant's Argument/Defendant's Argument) in Bobbi’s case, which focused on deficiencies in the Vancouver Police Department’s policies on when force can be used in the jail and how police deal with people who are intoxicated. 

Here is some of what we learned:

  • Before 2010, and after Bobbi was incarcerated, the Vancouver Jail did not have a specific policy on “gender appropriate staffing”. At the time of Bobbi’s arrest jail guards testified that they would provide a female guard to watch over a female prisoner whenever possible, but could not explain why that did not happen in Bobbi’s case.
  • Because of the possibility that a hobble restraint device can be used without causing significant pain to an individual, it was not classified in policy as a “use of force”, which triggers significant reporting requirements and oversight. The VPD’s witnesses conceded at trial however that despite not being listed the device could be considered a use of force, as it has the potential to cause an individual great discomfort or pain.
  • While some jurisdictions prevent the use of restraint devices on individuals who are not violent or a threat to safety, the Vancouver Police Department allows their use on prisoners who are being uncooperative, or causing a disturbance.
  • While jail guards are trained in the use of the device, they are not themselves placed in the device in the same way it is used in the jail, where it is run under the door and tightened. None of the witnesses knew what it felt like to be placed in the device in that manner.
  • The jail sergeant in charge explained that Bobbi was placed in the device for her own safety, as she was attempting to prevent guards from monitoring her. When asked how placing an individual in a device which causes them great pain and harm accomplishes the purpose of keeping them safe, the guard could not provide an answer.

While we wait for judgment in this case, we continue to lobby the provincial government and Vancouver Coastal Health for a full-time sobering centre that is accessible to anyone arrested under our provincial intoxication laws.

Taking people to jail when they need care is not the answer, and can lead to horrible results as we saw in Bobbi’s case. Vancouver Coastal Health recently committed to the creation of that facility, in line with the recommendations of the inquiry into the death of Frank Paul, but it is estimated that the consultation and construction process alone will take at least a year, possibly more.

Bobbi’s case should cause the VPD to reflect on their policies regarding the use of restraint devices, and prevent their use against non-violent prisoners like Bobbi. Being in a state of addiction, intoxication, anxiety, or depression is not a crime, and it’s time for the VPD to hand over the care of these citizens to health care professionals, in a facility catered to their needs.