Downtown Eastside residents, a former solicitor general and the family of a man who died after being shot by police with beanbag rounds say they and the wider community need answers to how a victim of a bear spray attack ended up dead on East Hastings Street.
Chris Amyotte, a father of seven and a member of the Rolling River First Nation in Manitoba, was visiting family in Vancouver when something happened that led to him being showered with bear spray in the Downtown Eastside on Aug. 22. He ended up on the 300 block of East Hastings Street, where he stripped all his clothes off and poured milk from a convenience store over his body in an attempt to wash off the noxious substance, which is extremely painful and can’t be easily wiped off.
Witnesses say Amyotte was behaving erratically, but he wasn’t armed or acting aggressively towards others when several police officers arrived on the scene. He didn’t obey officers’ commands to get down on the ground, and according to witnesses, that’s when police got a beanbag gun out of a police car and shot him a total of six times, two rounds to the front of his body and four to the back.
The incident is now under investigation by the Independent Investigations Office of BC, an agency that reviews all deaths or serious injuries that occur during interactions with police.
“A lot of our family are having a hard time grasping the circumstances around his death,” said Samantha Wilson, Amyotte’s cousin. “The fact that he was unarmed, that he was asking for help.”
What happened on Aug. 22?
Vancouver police say shortly before officers responded at around 8 a.m., Amyotte was involved in a “violent incident,” but won’t say where the incident occurred or what happened.
Jessika Anuroff, who sells items on the sidewalk on the corner of East Hastings and Dunlevy, said she saw Amyotte walk up East Hastings from the direction of Gore Street, then head into Laxmi Convenience, a store in the middle of the 300 block.
“He began to take off his clothes and he ran into a convenience store and asked for milk, and someone (either) bought it for him or he took it off the shelf,” Wilson told The Tyee. Wilson’s account comes from information she heard from witnesses she spoke to by phone on the day the incident happened.
“He began pouring it all over himself, and he was asking bystanders and witnesses to call 911.”
Maryah Boss, another resident who saw what happened, said she saw a store employee chase Amyotte out of a convenience store. She said at first, she and other people on the street didn’t know why Amyotte was screaming and naked. “We just thought he was high on drugs,” she said.
But when they saw him pour milk on himself, they realized he’d been bear sprayed, Boss said.
For a time, Anuroff said, Amyotte sat in a chair near her and she told him to calm down. At other points she saw him throw the jug of milk into the yard of a house, and he was also “jumping up and down like a bunny” while naked. But Anuroff said he didn’t have a weapon and wasn’t threatening anyone with violence.
“He never came at anyone to try to choke anybody or nothing,” Anuroff said. “He had his hands up and he was going 'aaahhhh!’ — like freaking out.”
Several police cars arrived on the scene and officers ordered Amyotte to stop walking and to get down, said Anuroff and Boss. He didn’t comply and kept walking away from the officers, but Boss said he wasn’t moving quickly — “he was just kind of shuffling,” she said.
"And we said 'don’t shoot him, don’t shoot him,'" recalled Anuroff.
Officers then fired around five shots, Anuroff said, with some of the beanbag rounds hitting him in the front of his torso and other shots hitting him in the back.
Amyotte didn’t go down at first, Anuroff said, but the final few shots finally brought him to the ground. According to Anuroff, that’s when officers first tried administering the opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan to the unconscious man, then tried CPR before the fire department and paramedics also arrived on the scene.
The Independent Investigations Office has asked witnesses of the incident to get in touch with them at 1-855-446-8477.
Bear spray incidents common in the neighbourhood
To people familiar with the Downtown Eastside, Amyotte’s behaviour isn’t that surprising. Bear spray is commonly used in the neighbourhood, often in robberies or to get revenge for perceived slights between residents. It’s a sad feature of life in the neighbourhood, and sometimes the attacks even happen between people who are usually close friends.
It’s extremely painful to be the target of a bear mace attack — often people can’t see, breathing might be difficult if they’ve breathed in the spray, and it’s so irritating to the skin that victims often strip off their clothes in an effort to get some relief.
Paulo Ribeiro worked in the neighbourhood as a mental health worker from 2004 to 2020. He said getting bear sprayed in the face was the most painful thing he’s ever experienced.
“A lot of people like to get a gallon of milk and use that, but that’s only if you don’t have access to running water,” Ribeiro said.
“It’s better to get them to a situation where you can pour running water over their head and face, because that stuff is sticky.”
Anuroff said she believes Amyotte didn’t comply with police orders because he physically could not do what they were asking.
“He doesn’t want to stop, because once you stop you get hot,” Anuroff said.
After seeing the aftermath of over a dozen bear spray attacks, Ribeiro said it would have been almost impossible for someone covered in mace to get down on the ground and lie still. He wants to know if the Vancouver Police Department has a specific policy or training when it comes to responding to people who have been bear sprayed.
“People cannot lie down and comply with orders,” Ribeiro said. “You’re going to be writhing, wiping at your face. You can’t lie on your back.”
Questions about beanbag rounds
Kash Heed is a former Vancouver police officer, a former police chief of West Vancouver and a former solicitor general. He said he’s seen beanbag rounds deployed over a dozen times, as well as reviewed video of many other deployments, and has never before seen beanbag rounds cause a death.
For that reason, Heed said, it’s important to find out what happened and how Amyotte died after being hit by the projectiles.
Heed said beanbag rounds are fired from a shotgun, which is usually marked with a fluorescent orange, pink or red barrel. The gun fires a bag filled with small pieces of metal shot which is supposed to hit an assailant but not pierce their body, as a bullet would. (The VPD says they do not paint the barrels of their beanbag guns as “the only patrol-based deployment for VPD shotguns is in a less-lethal capacity.”)*
It’s part of the range of “less-lethal” options — including tasers and batons — police have to try to subdue a person who’s a threat to others. But, Heed said, these options are called “less lethal,” not “non-lethal,” because there’s always a chance the targeted person can be hurt, including simply falling and hitting their head.
Officers are trained to aim “for the centre of mass,” Heed said, and beanbags should be fired from six to 20 feet away. In a message sent to The Tyee after publication, the VPD said beanbag gun operators are not trained to aim for the centre of mass, but to muscled areas such as thighs, arms, buttocks and the lower abdomen.
The VPD also told The Tyee that there is “no stand-off distance” with a beanbag gun “as the force of a beanbag round is consistent with being struck with a full baton swing from an average sized officer.”
"In my experience — and seeing the beanbag utilized so many times — I have never heard of it turning into a lethal weapon," Heed said. "And I think that needs to be explored.”
There have been incidents where beanbag rounds have penetrated people’s bodies, and they can be especially dangerous if they hit someone’s head.
A review of injuries from beanbag shootings during Black Lives Matter protests in Austin, Texas, in 2020 found that beanbag rounds caused serious head injuries, facial fractures and “penetrating soft tissue injury to chest and breast” when a beanbag round pierced the skin, as well as lacerations and broken bones. In a letter to the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, doctors who had compiled the list of injuries said beanbag guns should not be used for crowd control.
Residents and family call for change and answers
Wilson said her cousin was known for being the joker of the family, someone who loved to laugh and had “no filter.” A few years ago, he was in a serious car accident and had to learn how to walk again, but he had no other medical conditions, Wilson said.
“He was really committed to his children and his partner,” Wilson said. “He had a lot of love for his siblings.”
Wilson said her family needs to know what happened to Amyotte, and it’s important for the wider community as well.
“If six rounds into an individual was enough to put a stop to his beating heart, there’s got to be some obvious restitution,” Wilson said. “Not only for Chris but for other individuals.”
For many Downtown Eastside residents, the incident is one more alarming example of police force leading to the death of a person in crisis. In January 2021, police shot Chester Libo-On just six seconds after arriving at the corner of East Hastings and Princess, where Libo-On had been harming himself and saying he wanted to die while armed with a sword.
A report from the Independent Investigations Office cleared two officers of wrongdoing when they shot Libo-On with conventional bullets as he strode towards them with his sword raised. But mental health advocates said the incident was one more example of how the health-care system and policing are failing people with severe mental illness.
"I just think there needs to be a different procedure in place," said mental health worker Ribeiro about the deadly force that took Amyotte’s life. "It’s such a common incident down there, I’m a little surprised (police) don’t have more awareness about it. Even if they just gave the guy time and let people help him."
Boss spoke to officers after the shooting, and one of them told her Amyotte had passed away.
She says she told the officers, “'Yo, can I just say something? Maybe next time, instead of you guys just shooting a man that’s covered in bear spray… and isn’t going fast, maybe you could talk to your peers about having some sort of policy where you don’t shoot.’”
Two hours after Amyotte’s life ended someone had posted, just outside the police tape, a sign printed with a black marker on white poster board.
“VPD killing the community one by one,” it read. “Who’s next?”
* Story updated on Aug. 31 at 11:27 a.m. to include information sent from the Vancouver Police Department about how officers use beanbag shotguns.
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