The head of British Columbia's police watchdog says caring for intoxicated prisoners is a health-care issue and shouldn't be a police responsibility.
A report released by Ronald J. MacDonald, the chief civilian director of the Independent Investigations Office (IIO), says holding those who are intoxicated in jail cells is outdated and offers no guarantee of their safety and health.
The agency's report came after a man in Williams Lake, B.C., who was thought to be suffering from alcohol or drug withdrawal, had a "life-threatening health crisis'' in RCMP cells last year.
The unidentified man was arrested on Nov. 13, began vomiting about 24 hours later, then was found struggling to breathe and was rushed to hospital.
Investigators with the Independent Investigations Office of B.C., the province's police watchdog agency, at a Lower Mainland crime scene in 2019. The office investigates incidents of death or serious harm that may be the consequence of police actions. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)
The report says the RCMP's call for help was actually "optimal'' for the man because his symptoms were serious enough that he was hospitalized, but any later would have increased his risk of death.
MacDonald says the officers didn't commit any offences in the way they treated the man but he has concerns about how intoxicated prisoners are housed in the province.
"Too many people die in police custody, often through no fault of the police. The care of intoxicated persons should not be a police responsibility,'' MacDonald's report concludes.
"It is a health-care issue. It is time for government to take steps to facilitate the changes necessary to ensure intoxicated persons who need care receive it from trained health-care professionals.''
A 2021 CBC News investigation found that since 2019, more than 60 people arrested for intoxication had died in police holding cells across Canada.
MacDonald previously called on the B.C. government to bring health care to police detachments in a February report on a Vancouver Island man who was arrested for public intoxication and died in police custody from acute alcohol withdrawal.
MacDonald found while Comox Valley RCMP did all they could, they are not the most appropriate body to help people who are intoxicated.
"You have a person, who has a health-care issue, and we're putting them into a jail cell," MacDonald said, calling it an outdated practice from when addiction was treated as a crime.
The IIO is a civilian-led police oversight agency that conducts investigations into incidents of serious harm or death that may be the consequence of police actions or inactions.
Sobering centre opened in Prince George
A sobering centre opened in Prince George, B.C., earlier this month after it was recommended at a coroner's inquest following the death of a Gitxsan man in police custody years ago.
Calls for the centre gained momentum following the death of 51-year-old Jamie Shanoss, who was arrested in November 2016 after an officer found him intoxicated and sleeping on a sidewalk.
Shanoss, 51, was found dead with a blood-alcohol level of .38. An inquest into his death led to the recommendation that health authorities explore the creation of a sobering centre for people who are heavily intoxicated. (Submitted by Sherri Shanoss)
Shanoss was taken to a cell where people who are intoxicated are taken to sober up and which police at the time commonly referred to as "the drunk tank," according to later testimony from RCMP.
He died there, his body found between three other cell mates.
The B.C. government announced funding for a sobering centre in the city in the summer of 2022, promising 24/7 services by fall that year in collaboration with Northern Health.
Kamloops has been calling for a sobering centre since 2016, and this past May approved $30,000 to fund an updated business case to present to the province.
When asked about cities wanting sobering centres, B.C.'s Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said the government is working to fill gaps in services for people with mental health and addictions challenges.
This, they said in a written statement, includes a $1-billion dollar investment in the 2023 budget to continue building "an integrated continuum of care for mental health and addictions services," including 195 new treatment and recovery beds throughout B.C.