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VPD: mental health contributing factor in 73 per cent of ‘stranger assaults’ in Vancouver

New police data examined 44 'stranger assault' cases between March and June 2022
Vancouver police have found that the mental health of a suspect was a contributing factor in 73 per cent of 44 recent assault cases examined by the department. File photo Dan Toulgoet

New Vancouver police data released on recent assaults committed by people not known to the victim found that mental health was a contributing factor in 73 per cent of 44 cases examined by the department

Of the 44 “stranger assaults," 53 per cent involved a suspect who had been previously apprehended by police under the Mental Health Act, according to the data, which police released Monday (July 18) via Twitter.

“Despite recent arrests and convictions, we continue to hear community concerns about street violence and stranger attacks,” the VPD tweeted. “We’re concerned, too. We’ve analyzed data from 44 recent cases to better understand the root causes.”

The findings:

• 90 per cent of suspects were men.

• 60 per cent were 20 to 39 years old.

• 60 per cent were previously charged with a violent crime.

• 78 per cent were charged in a previous criminal incident.

• 40 suspects had 3,892 prior police interactions across the region; more than half were with VPD.

The data covered the period between March and June of this year.

Four unprovoked assaults every day in Vancouver

A recent memo from the VPD to city council identified random stranger attacks as a "crime trend" and “issue of note” for politicians to consider. Many have involved weapons, including machetes and knives.

“The VPD analysis of data indicates that there are more than four unprovoked stranger assaults in Vancouver every day,” said the memo, which has since been posted to the city’s website.

In that same memo, police highlighted two cases in June.

In one case, a 67-year-old man was stabbed at an Esso gas station, near East Hastings and Skeena streets. Witnesses said a man hit a pedestrian with his vehicle, then got out of his car and allegedly chased several people while holding a knife and a machete.

He reportedly punched a passerby, then turned his attention back to the pedestrian, stabbing him on the neck and back. As he attempted to steal a motorcycle parked at the gas station, he was stopped by officers, who arrived within moments of the 911 call.

In another case, a VPD officer was flagged over near the Empress Hotel, near Main and Hastings streets. The officer discovered two people had been slashed with a machete while loading luggage into a waiting taxi. The attack left both victims with head and neck wounds that required hospitalization, but both were expected to recover.

Yaletown homicide

On Tuesday, police said via a news release that a 34-year-old woman has been charged following last week's fatal stabbing in Yaletown of Justin Mohrmann.

Mohrmann, 29, was stabbed while walking near Smithe and Homer streets on the morning of July 11.

"Investigators have found no evidence to suggest the victim and accused knew each other," said Sgt. Steve Addison, a media relations officer. "We believe they were strangers."

Lindsay Scott, 34, has been charged with with one count of second-degree murder in connection with the homicide. Police said Scott was arrested Sunday without incident near Main and Hastings streets.

'I've never heard of such a thing before'

Police Chief Adam Palmer told the Vancouver Police Board in October 2021 that random assaults were at a level that he has not seen in his policing career.

At the time, the chief said police tracked 1,700 such incidents, or roughly four per day, between Sept. 1, 2020 and Aug. 31, 2021. Of those, 47 per cent involved a knife or some type of weapon, he said.

“I’ve been a police officer in this city for 34 years and I’ve never heard of such a thing before,” said Palmer, adding that 28 per cent of the suspects arrested were living with some form of mental illness.

Palmer and chiefs before him have all been clear on the need for more mental health services in Vancouver.

Rarely violent

In May, Jonathan Morris, the CEO of the B.C. division of the Canadian Mental Health Association told a public safety forum at city hall that people living with a mental illness are rarely violent and more likely to become victims than perpetrators of violence.

Context is important, Morris said, when hearing reports of violent acts.

“Recognizing that mental illness is a catch-all doesn't describe the experience of everyone,” he said, noting that when a person with a mental illness is violent, systemic and social factors are usually involved.

“Sometimes violence happens because violence happens, and there's no root at the cause of that related to a mental illness of any kind.”

Added Morris: "I've seen social media posts that describe unprovoked stranger attacks appearing to be related to mental illness, and appearing is not good enough. If there are confirmed authoritative claims that untreated mental illness was absolutely a driver, then, yes, we need to investigate that and make that claim."

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