[Editor’s note: This story article contains disturbing information about policing, sexual violence and suicide. It may be triggering to some readers.]
On the evening of Jan. 26, 2019, Nicole Chan was at Vancouver General Hospital. The 30-year-old Vancouver police officer had been taken there under B.C.’s Mental Health Act after her boyfriend had found her with a noose and scissors.
Officers from the VPD’s human resources department also showed up at VGH that night and spoke with Chan. One of those officers, Sgt. Shelley Horne, had previously interviewed Chan when she made an allegation that another officer, Sgt. Dave Van Patten, had sexually assaulted her.
Against the wishes of the officers who had brought her to the hospital, Chan was released that night. She went home and talked on the phone with another co-worker and friend, Sgt. Corey Bech.
“She said she was feeling OK, but she was very upset and angry that members of our human resources department had shown up at the hospital,” Bech told a coroner’s inquest that heard testimony from Jan. 23 to Feb. 1, 2023.
“What she was most upset about at that time was members of our HR department being at the hospital. What that signified to her is that her career was essentially over.”
In the early hours of Jan. 27, 2019, Chan died by suicide in her Vancouver apartment.
Chan had dreamed of becoming a police officer since she was a child.
But inside the VPD, she encountered a toxic workplace environment and faced gossip and abusive relationships, according to testimony given at the coroner’s inquest. Bech testified that after Chan submitted official complaints about two senior officers, some VPD members supported Chan while others supported the men she had complained about. Her mental health and the complaints, one of which included allegations of sexual assault, were widely discussed, Bech told the inquest.
Chan should have felt safe asking for help from the VPD’s human resources department and her union, but one of the officers she complained about, Sgt. Dave Van Patten, worked in HR and Chan believed he had strong ties to the union as well, according to Bech.
In an interview with The Tyee, Bech said he believes some things have improved inside the VPD since Chan’s death.
“Some of the assistance members are provided, like peer support, have improved,” Bech said.
“Do I think that the rumour mill side of the things has improved? I don't know if it's any different than it was four years ago.”
Gossip and rumours
Bech says that culture of gossiping has affected him personally. In the weeks leading up to the start of the inquest, he was publicly accused in a civil lawsuit of having an inappropriate sexual relationship with Nicole that started when she was 17 and he was in his early 30s — allegations that were then repeated in local news reports. Following those media stories, Bech’s work in the VPD’s school liaison officer program, which started after he met Chan, was called into question in the February newsletter of the District Parent Advisory Council for Vancouver schools.
But Bech says the allegations in the lawsuit are false: he was Chan’s friend for many years, but never had an intimate relationship with her at any point. He also says the characterization of him in the lawsuit as a recruiter for the VPD is not accurate; when he met Chan, he was a constable who had been on the job just a couple of years.
Chan’s sister, Jennifer, declined to do a full interview with The Tyee about what her sister experienced while working at the VPD. But she told The Tyee she believes Bech, and that her sister never gave her any reason to think that her relationship with him was anything more than a friendship. The Chan family’s lawyer told The Tyee Bech will be dropped from the lawsuit because “evidence has since come forth to refute the need to add him as a defendant.”
The purpose of a coroner’s inquest is not to assign blame, but to establish how a death occurred and provide recommendations to prevent future loss of life. The inquest has now made a total of 12 recommendations. Eight of those recommendations are directed at the Vancouver Police Department. They include recommendations to require mandatory mental health check-ins, develop specific training for officers working in HR and improve training for officers who are promoted to senior ranks. The recommendations also call for recognizing that gossip and rumours are an example of unprofessional behaviour.
“We will take time to review the jury’s recommendations,” VPD Chief Adam Palmer promised in a statement released after the inquest. “We remain committed to ensuring Nicole’s death continues to lead to positive change within policing and for anyone struggling with their mental health.”
The Tyee reached out to the VPD, but were referred to the policy and the inquest testimony.
The VPD updated its policy on personal relationships in the workplace in 2021, and now requires employees to declare any relationships in the workplace that represent a conflict. When relationships are declared, VPD management will check for conflicts of interest and whether those conflicts can be mitigated, according to testimony given at the inquest by Christine McLean, the VPD’s director of labour and employee relations.
A ‘turbulent’ relationship leading to acute distress
Much of the testimony at the coroner’s inquest focused on Chan’s mental health. Inquest jurors heard that Chan had made suicide attempts several times during her life, including before she became a police officer and before she entered the police academy.
Dr. Randy Mackoff, a psychologist who frequently works with the VPD, testified that when he reviewed the psychological intake assessment Chan was given before joining the force, he identified 14 potential issues — a higher number than the usual five or six issues he normally identifies.
Testimony given by multiple witnesses left the impression that Chan had difficulty with romantic and sexual relationships and was perhaps too fragile to handle the demanding job of a police officer.
Bech says he never directly supervised Chan, but he believes she was good at her job. Bech and his police partner met Chan in her late teens, when she was working at a coffee shop they frequented regularly. Chan asked for Bech’s advice about how to become a police officer, and then followed it, volunteering at a community policing centre and taking a job as a security guard. In an impact statement submitted to WorkSafeBC, Chan wrote that she had left school to become a police officer “as early as possible.”
By age 20, Chan was working as a jail guard at the VPD, another step closer to joining the force. Jennifer Chan testified that her sister was motivated to become a police officer because “she wanted to do right in the world and find justice.”
Bech said Chan received several commendations during her career as a police officer, and was known to be a hard worker. Part of Bech’s work duties included reviewing reports written by officers to be sent to Crown counsel; Chan’s reports “were excellent,” he said.
But the sequence of events Chan experienced from 2016 to her death in early 2019 deeply impacted her ability to do her job.
According to the civil lawsuit claim, which includes allegations that have not yet been tested in court, Chan began having a sexual relationship with Van Patten in February or March 2016. The “turbulent” relationship led to two episodes where Chan was in acute distress, according to the claim. During the second episode, VPD officers went to Bellingham, Washington, to retrieve her and bring her back safely to Vancouver.
“The news of Nicole’s suicide attempt spread quickly through the VPD,” the statement of claim alleges.
On the recommendation of the VPD, Chan began seeing Mackoff, the psychologist who frequently works with the VPD, in May 2016. On multiple occasions, Mackoff communicated with Van Patten about Chan’s mental health treatment, including a message he sent to Van Patten in May 2017. Chan’s WorkSafeBC claim, which was approved in November 2018, alleges that Van Patten told Chan he had access to her human resources files, including her medical information, and told Chan not to tell Mackoff about their relationship.
In the summer of 2016, Van Patten discovered photos and messages on the phone of another officer who had had a sexual relationship with Chan. Van Patten took a video of that material and threatened to tell Chan’s spouse and the other officer’s spouse about their affair.
Under pressure from this threat, Chan continued to have sex with Van Patten, according to the lawsuit and her WorkSafeBC claim. “I felt coerced into having sex and continuing the relationship,” Chan wrote in her WorkSafeBC claim.
“On some occasions, I told Van Patten I was not interested in sex. He would undress and put his penis near my face,” she wrote in the WorkSafeBC claim. The lawsuit alleges that at some point, Chan discovered that Van Patten was handling her file in the human resources department.
Van Patten’s lawyer, David Butcher, told The Tyee in an email that his client will be filing a response to the civil lawsuit that will deny the claims. Butcher said Van Patten was not subpoenaed to testify for the inquest, so the public and the inquest jurors never got the chance to hear his side of the story. Butcher said his client has a collection of messages from Chan which he believes proves that any relationship between him and Chan was consensual.
By September 2017, Chan was on leave because of her deteriorating mental health. But she was also fighting back: she filed her WorkSafeBC claim and did a formal interview about the alleged sexual assaults with Sgt. Horne, who was on the sex crimes unit at the time.
Bech said he worked with Chan to help her find a Vancouver Police Union rep she could trust to help her file her WorkSafeBC claim. According to the civil lawsuit, WorkSafeBC found that “Nicole was exposed to cumulative events of multiple sexual assaults between March 2016 and October 2016.”
In an impact statement for her WorkSafeBC claim, Chan detailed the effect the abuse had had on her ability to do the job she loved. She wrote that she was already suffering from mental health challenges, but “this incident aggravated my condition.” When she tried to return to work in February 2018, she found she had developed a fear of being inside other people’s homes.
“I feel unsafe and the constant need to escape, which I believe stems from what I maintain was a sexual assault inside Dave [Van Patten’s] apartment,” Chan wrote.
“It was my dream to serve the public as a law enforcement officer…. Deployable work is what I signed up to do. I had aspirations and started to prepare for other fully deployable work…. Now all that is gone. My mental concentration is gone. One of my strengths is talking to criminals and I can’t do that now. I constantly get flashbacks of coercion.”
Police officers in HR
Other mechanisms of police discipline had also been set in motion. On April 24, 2018, the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner began an investigation into Chan’s complaint against Van Patten. That investigation was suspended when the OPCC requested a separate criminal investigation into Chan’s allegations, which was conducted by the New Westminster Police Department.
David Jones, the chief of Metro Vancouver’s Transit Police, conducted the OPCC investigation. In his testimony at the inquest, Jones said that his investigation substantiated that Van Patten had found photos and messages on the phone of the other police officer and used them in “a threatening manner towards Cst. Chan.”
Jones said that he also found that Van Patten and Chan had agreed to keep their relationship secret, “which included not disclosing their relationship to medical professionals who were treating Cst. Chan for mental health related matters.” Even though Van Patten was not Chan’s direct supervisor, his senior rank meant that there was a power imbalance between him and Chan, Jones said.
During a hearing in March 2019, Van Patten denied the allegations, Jones recalled during his testimony. “He entered denials with comments that kind of admitted parts of it, but the entries were all denial,” Jones said.
Jones also testified about the criminal investigation into allegations of sexual assault that was conducted by the New Westminster Police Department, an investigation Jones said was kept separate from the OPCC investigation.
“The criminal investigation was conducted thoroughly,” Jones told the inquest. “It involved the receipt of both statements from Cst. Chan and other witnesses.
“There was a reply to some degree, as I recall, from Sgt. Van Patten, from his legal counsel — mainly some documents such as emails and stuff that had occurred.”
The information was put into a report to Crown counsel, but prosecutors declined to proceed with any criminal charges, Jones said.
In an interview after the inquest, The Tyee spoke further with Jones about why police officers work in the human resources departments of police forces.
Jones said most police departments employ a combination of civilian staff and police officers in their human resources departments. Police officers are often involved in recruiting new officers, he said, but have also adapted into a role of “assisting with the steps that are identified with helping employees who are on a return to work program, or needing to see medical professionals.”
Jones said it’s helpful to have police officers working in HR because they are well-positioned to understand what other officers are going through and can develop trust with their colleagues based on those shared experiences.
‘How can I return? No boss would want to work with me’
When Bech spoke to Chan in December 2018, he recalled that she was angry about how long the OPCC process was taking, and anxious about the final decision of the OPCC.
“She was feeling stressed,” Bech told the inquest. “And she had difficulty thinking about anything else.”
On Jan. 7, 2019, Chan provided an impact statement to the OPCC. On Jan. 26, she had an argument with her boyfriend and became extremely distressed; he called police and officers took her to hospital.
When Bech talked to Chan later that night, she told him about her fears that she would never be allowed to return to work.
“How can I return? No boss would want to work with me,” Chan wrote in a notebook that was found after her death, along with a suicide note that asked her sister to care for her beloved dog, Ollie.
Realistically, Bech said, it was unlikely that Chan would ever have been cleared for police work again, given the state of her mental health. “But I'm not sure that they ever communicated that with her,” Bech said. “Was anybody really up front with Nicole on where she sat in terms of her career and whether she can return or not?”
On Jan. 9, 2020, nearly a year after Chan’s death, the OPCC released its disciplinary decision. The OPCC ordered that Van Patten be dismissed “related to misconduct occurring during an inappropriate relationship with a junior Vancouver police officer.”
In the victim impact statement Chan submitted to WorkSafeBC, she had begged for justice.
“I am passionate about victim’s rights and I never imagined that I would become a victim myself,” Chan wrote.
“As a police officer, I always stood up for those who didn’t have a voice and I hope someone here will do that for me.
“Please help me get some justice. They say the world is not fair, but as officers, isn’t justice what we fight for?”