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Rights + Justice
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Municipal Politics

‘There Has to be a Better Way’: Police Kill a Sword-Wielding Man in the Downtown Eastside

It’s the third such violent incident involving police since November. Advocates want changes to how authorities deal with those in distress.

Jen St. Denis 6 Jan 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

A police watchdog agency is now investigating after a man was shot dead by Vancouver police in the Downtown Eastside early Tuesday morning.

Before he was shot, the man was naked, yelling, brandishing a sword and had injured himself running repeatedly into a glass door. It’s the third such violent incident involving police since November, and advocates say there need to be changes when it comes to dealing with people who are in emotional distress.*

“There has to be a better way,” said Meenakshi Mannoe, a criminal justice campaigner for Pivot Legal. “Crisis and chaos are not unusual in the Downtown Eastside, it’s something the police should be prepared for if they’re responding to calls. You can safely assume that people are experiencing marginalized health, that they’re experiencing mental health issues, that they’re being impacted by unsafe and toxic drug supply.”

Police say they had received reports that the man was chasing people with the sword.

Witnesses say they saw the man naked and yelling through the window of a unit in Grace Mansion, a transitional housing building at East Hastings Street and Princess Avenue.

John Desousa, who was staying at Union Gospel Mission across the street, said he saw the man grab a sword from the wall inside the suite, then come outside around 5 a.m.

He was yelling “she doesn’t love me anymore,” and then ran into a Plexiglas window twice, shattering it the second time, Desousa said.

A man who gave his first name as Warner said he observed the incident from his room at Union Gospel Mission. Warner said police arrived about 20 minutes after the man began yelling on the street.

“They said, ‘Drop it!’ or something like that, and then boom, boom, boom,” Warner said. Desousa said he also heard three shots.

Warner said he was shocked by how quickly police opened fire. He questioned why officers didn’t use a non-lethal weapon such as a Taser.

Video of the shooting shows the man striding towards a police officer with a long weapon raised. The officer then opens fire.

Video obtained by The Tyee shows what appears to be the immediate aftermath of the shooting, with a man lying in the intersection of Hastings and Princess and one police officer training a weapon on the man. Another police officer then walks in a wide circle around the man, picking up an object near the man and walking away again.

The province’s Independent Investigations Office is now investigating and was on the scene with police Tuesday afternoon. The office is a civilian-led police oversight agency that investigates all deaths or serious injuries that are linked to police actions.

Grace Mansion is operated by the Salvation Army and offers transitional housing to people for up to 24 months in a “clean and sober environment,” according to the building’s website.

A spokesperson for the Salvation Army did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Tyee.

851px version of PrincessStreetBrokenBuildingWindow.jpg
First he smashed the windows in his Downtown Eastside transitional housing building. Then he was shot dead by police. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

In a press release, police say they attended after being called by BC Ambulance Service for help with a 37-year-old man who was acting in an “erratic and aggressive” way. He had smashed the window of his room and “was throwing large wooden objects out of the window onto the street,” according to police. The VPD says he already had multiple injuries before police arrived.

“Reports came in that this man was chasing people with the weapon and using it in an aggressive and threatening manner. The man was subsequently shot by police," VPD spokesperson Tania Visintin wrote in a press release.

The incident comes just two days after police shot a man at a building at Princess Avenue and Powell Street during what police call “a prolonged standoff” that started when witnesses reported seeing a man with a rifle.

When a man came out of a suite in the building, police shot him, and he was taken to hospital with what police said were “non-life threatening injuries.” A second man came out of the suite hours later after police “negotiated a resolution” and he was taken into custody.

The Independent Investigations Office is investigating the Jan. 3 incident, as well as an incident in November in which a man died after a “physical altercation” with Vancouver police in a Tim Hortons at Main Street and Terminal Avenue.

Police had been responding to a report that the man had refused to leave a washroom in the restaurant and said that when he came out of the bathroom he was “agitated and aggressive, which resulted in a physical altercation.”

Mannoe said it’s common for people who live in the Downtown Eastside to be in distress as they deal with mental illness or stressful life events like losing a loved one or living in deep poverty.

She pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected the Downtown Eastside, with more people being pushed into homelessness. An even more toxic drug supply has killed many people in the neighbourhood while community services and interactions have been cut.

Mannoe was personally shaken by the violent incident. Her partner, who works as a bus driver, had been told there would be a delay in getting his bus ready because maintenance staff had to check it for bullet fragments.

“The fact that police enter these situations and escalate to the point of killing people again points out how inappropriate their response is,” Mannoe said.

*Story updated on Jan. 6 at 8:45 a.m. to correct information about the November altercation at a Downtown Tim Hortons. There was a “physical altercation” with police after which a person died but no one was shot.  [Tyee]

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