Provincial court finds VPD jail guards negligent in restraint device case

Vancouver, BC [January 21] — A BC Provincial Court justice has awarded an Aboriginal woman damages after she was jailed and placed in a restraint device for almost an hour instead of receiving medical care following an anxiety attack.

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

Bobbi O’Shea sued the Vancouver Police Department after police responded to a call for medical assistance in 2008 and instead imprisoned her. During last June’s trial, one of the officers testified that she was incarcerated because she admitted to drug use before the onset of an anxiety attack and because the Vancouver Detox, where people are sometimes taken for medical care, was closed at the time.

In awarding O’Shea $9,000 in damages, Judge Laura Bakan found “there was a breach of the standard of care owed to Ms. O’Shea” and that “relevant information was not reviewed or acted upon which if it had been, would likely have prevented the situation escalating.” Judge Bakan cited the police’s failure to consider reports from ambulance attendants citing her anxiety, the fact that she was not a threat of violence, and their refusal to let Ms. O’Shea see a nurse once she arrived in jail.

“This is a vindication for Bobbi and everyone else in her community who has been criminalized when they were in need of medical care,” says Doug King, police accountability lawyer for Pivot Legal Society, who represented O’Shea. “This decision recognizes that the system has failed to provide adequate supports for people in need of medical attention, instead putting health care in the hands of police. It reinforces the findings from the Frank Paul inquiry and points to the urgent need for access to 24-hour sobering centres in our community.”

Former B.C. Supreme Court justice William Davies issued a series of recommendations following the death of Frank Paul, an Aboriginal man who died from hypothermia after police left him severely intoxicated in an East Vancouver alley. One of his main recommendations was the establishment in Vancouver of a stand-alone, civilian-operated sobering centre where intoxicated individuals can spend the night.

In her decision, Judge Bakan also considered findings from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, citing O’Shea’s existing emotional and physical trauma resulting from sexual assault and her family’s history in residential schools.

“I find Ms. O’Shea’s difficult life circumstances in this matter, when viewed in the context of ‘the broad systemic and background factors affecting Aboriginal people’ are analogous and relevant […].”

She also referenced the disproportionate number of Aboriginal prisoners incarcerated in Canada.

“I left the Vancouver Jail angry and hurt. I never thought I’d see justice,” says O’Shea. “I decided to fight back not just for myself, but for others in my community who’ve been treated the same way. It’s wrong and it must end.”

While Judge Bakan declined to rule directly on the Vancouver police’s continued use of the hobble restraint device, which involves both ankles and wrists being bound together and strapped to a door while the detainee is on the floor, both King and O’Shea are calling on the VPD to make policy changes. When faced with a similar civil lawsuit, the Victoria Police Department responded by changing its policies and eliminating the use of the restraint device. 

A copy of the decision can be found here.

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About Pivot Legal Society
Pivot Legal Society is a leading Canadian human rights organization that uses the law to address the root causes of poverty and social exclusion in Canada. Pivot’s award-winning work includes challenging laws and policies that force people to the margins of society and keep them there. Since 2002 Pivot Legal Society has won major victories for sex workers’ rights, police accountability, affordable housing, and health and drug policy.
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