SURREY, B.C. — Intoxicated people are dying in jail cells in what the British Columbia police watchdog says is an “outdated practice” of holding them for their own protection when they should be getting health care.
A report released by Ronald J. MacDonald, the chief civilian director of the Independent Investigations Office, says detaining these people in jail offers no guarantee of safety or health.
His report released Monday says police officers should not be responsible for caring for intoxicated people.
"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."
MacDonald says there are options, besides jails, that are already being used in other places in the province, such as sobering centres or having health professionals on site to help.
"Officers and jail guards are not trained medical personnel, and jail cells are not the best place for such prisoners," the report says.
"Holding intoxicated persons in police cells, ostensibly for their own protection, guarded by people who are not trained health professionals, is an outdated practice, and proven not to provide adequate guarantees of their safety and health."
Outside the legislature Monday, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said he had just become aware of the report and will review it before making any comment.
MacDonald was unavailable for further comment on his report on Monday.
The 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.
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.
Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services with the West Coast Prison Justice Society, said she supports MacDonald’s call for change and thinks it should include better medical support for people going through withdrawal after arriving in jail.
"I think it's important that people who are intoxicated or in withdrawal are treated appropriately by health-care professionals with compassion," she said, adding that's not likely to happen if someone is held in a cell.
The Independent Investigations Office is a civilian oversight agency that investigates all officer-related cases where there has been serious harm or death.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2023.
Ashley Joannou, The Canadian Press