A video showing a Vancouver police officer tasing a man in the downtown area has sparked concern about the use of force in mental health calls.
Jessica Wetzstein lives near Rogers Arena and captured multiple videos of an incident involving several VPD officers and a man who was experiencing a mental health crisis on Saturday (May 21). She told Vancouver Is Awesome that she heard yelling around 10 p.m. and saw three cop cars park outside shortly after.
"So I saw that and ran up and brought my camera," she said in a phone interview. "And that's when I saw that she had a taser out...and this man was casually leaning up against a garbage can with one leg crossed over the other."
In the video, six officers surround the man but only one of them appears to use a taser. After he's brought to the ground, two officers bump fists.
Wetzstein, who is filming, is heard gasping in the video and saying "oh my god...why did they do that? He wasn't resisting in any way."
"This man's clearly having a mental episode; he's been sitting by himself screaming," she said in the interview.
@jesswetzstein PLEASE BOOST!!! @ctv May 21 I saw a #homeless man yelling to himself alone on a bench for 20 minutes, later I see cops, he was calm but I saw her taser out so I ran to grab my 📸gear, I captured 3 minutes of her #taser out before her partner tries to grab his hand and he holds the railing behind himself. She SHOT HIM and almost BOTH the holding officers arms. #policebrutality #VANCOUVER #easthastings #policebrutalitymuststop #vancouverbc #homelesslivesmatter #homelessness #defundthepolice #acab ♬ original sound - Jessica Wetzstein
Vancouver police forward the incident to OPCC
The Vancouver Police Department has forwarded the incident to the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner (OPCC) for review and would not provide any further comment.
Cameron J.R. Loveless, director of oversight operations with the OPCC, said its office has been made aware of the matter and is collecting further information, including from the VPD to identify the officers and the circumstances of the incident.
"Further steps under the Police Act will be undertaken once we have the appropriate information before us," he said in an email.
Benjamin Perrin, a professor at the University of British Columbia Peter A. Allard School of Law, told V.I.A. that there is a massive epidemic in Canada regarding the use of police force, including the death of individuals who are in mental health distress.
While he couldn't comment on the specific, aforementioned incident, he underscored that tasers can be lethal and are often used against unarmed individuals.
"Tasers were billed as less-lethal weapons...the idea that they would in many ways replace the use of a police firearm," he said, noting that the weapons are used with a "greater frequency" as a result.
"A violation of the police Code of Conduct and can result in discipline."
Also known as "conducted energy weapons," tasers have been fatal in numerous mental health calls across the country. The Canadian Mental Health Association has long advocated for better support for people in crisis, citing the "propensity of law enforcement officials to deploy them on people experiencing a mental health crisis."
As Perrin notes, there are only three options when people dial 9-1-1. And often, when someone calls the emergency line for a person in crisis, that individual may feel alarmed when seeing a police officer, particularly if they've had negative experiences with law enforcement in the past.
An article in the Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture from the University of Alberta outlines how tasers are used disproportionately against those experiencing mental health crises, with substance abuse issues, who are poor, and people of colour.
Vancouver Criminal Law Lawyer Kyla Lee echoed this sentiment and noted that police are trained to use verbal de-escalation tactics and less significant uses of force before any kind of weapon, including tasers.
"That would include physical restraint, putting a person on the ground, even some punching," she explained, adding that the use of a taser without justification "can constitute not only a physical assault and a criminal act but also a violation of the police Code of Conduct and can result in discipline."
In 2021, a Vancouver man recorded a VPD officer who shoved a man to the ground during a mental health call. While the video was removed from social media, it eventually went to the OPCC for review.