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Death in police cell prompts call for better medical care for intoxicated prisoners

The Comox Valley RCMP detachment in Courtenay, where an intoxicated man died in a police jail cell. The Independent Investigations Office says putting an intoxicated person in a jail cell is an outdated practice that has been proven not to adequately guarantee their safety. (RCMP  - image credit)
The Comox Valley RCMP detachment in Courtenay, where an intoxicated man died in a police jail cell. The Independent Investigations Office says putting an intoxicated person in a jail cell is an outdated practice that has been proven not to adequately guarantee their safety. (RCMP - image credit)

The head of B.C.'s Independent Investigations Office (IIO) has issued a report calling on the government to make sure health professionals are available to all intoxicated prisoners after a man died when he was left to sober up in a police cell.

On April 23, 2022, Comox Valley RCMP arrested a man after he was reported trespassing in someone's yard in Courtenay, on Vancouver Island.

According to the IIO report, police officers said the man appeared to be intoxicated by drugs but was co-operative.

Police transported him to the RCMP detachment in Courtenay, where he was placed in custody for public intoxication. They did not charge him and planned to release him once he was sober.

The report says prisoner logbooks and CCTV footage show the man was checked on regularly and remained conscious and active for nearly eight hours.

Then he was found unconscious, transported to hospital and died the next day.

An autopsy found the man died from complications of acute alcohol withdrawal, with steatosis of the liver (fatty liver disease) also contributing.

The man was an alcoholic who, at the time of his death, had been trying to wean himself off alcohol with the help of medication.

'Raises concerns about how intoxicated prisoners are housed'

In his report, Chief Civilian Director Ron MacDonald said the involvement of guards and officers was "timely and appropriate" while the man was in their custody, and they didn't commit any offence that led to his death.

But he also said it's not the first time he has seen an intoxicated person die in custody, through no fault of police.

"I've seen many, many cases of individuals who are picked up by police for some form of intoxication, placed in cells and wind up dead," MacDonald told CBC in an interview.

"And I've found in many of those cases that the police did everything they're expected to do."

MacDonald said the incident raises concerns about how prisoners who are intoxicated are housed in B.C., and he noted that police officers and jail guards are not trained medical professionals.

In the report, MacDonald wrote that "jail cells are not the best place for such prisoners."

He called it an "outdated practice, and proven not to adequately guarantee their safety and health," and pointed out that other options already in place in some parts of B.C., such as sobering centres or jails and prisons that have health care professionals on-site.

"People who suffer from intoxication or substance issues often have underlying medical conditions — this is a health issue.

"Just because we've been doing it this way all the time doesn't mean it's the right way to do it," he added, noting that he believes many police agencies agree.

MacDonald called on the government to change the way intoxicated people are brought into custody and to make sure safer, health-based options are available across the province.

He says the practice of placing someone in a holding cell to sober up dates back to when most public intoxication was related to alcohol. Today, he says intoxication could be related to a number of different substances, all with different health implications.

MacDonald also added that smaller jails don't have the same capacity to hire medically trained staff as larger population centres such as Vancouver and Surrey.

"I'd like to see this become an important issue that's studied and that the best approach is taken that can be applied in the widest array of circumstances.

In an emailed statement to CBC, the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General said it was unable to comment on the IIO investigation and its findings.

The ministry said the government is "building a comprehensive system of treatment" that was non-existent six years ago and is working to create more space for sobering and assessment beds.

"These beds provide a short-term (typically less than 24 hours), safe place for people under the influence of substances," reads the statement. "Staff monitor symptoms of acute intoxication to help people stay safe."

The ministry says the beds are designed "to divert anyone at risk of withdrawal from emergency rooms and the criminal justice system and direct them to appropriate care," and there are currently 98 of them across the province.