Rodney Levi's death was result of 'suicide by cop,' N.B. coroner's inquest told

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MIRAMICHI, N.B. — The fatal police shooting of an Indigenous man in New Brunswick last year was a case of "suicide by cop," a researcher who studies suicide told a coroner's inquest Tuesday.

Forensic suicidologist Greg Zed testified at the inquest into the death of Rodney Levi, 48, who was shot by RCMP on June 12, 2020, when police responded to a report of a man with knives at a home in Sunny Corner, N.B.

Zed said he examined Levi's history of mental health issues, addiction and interaction with police. He said he looked at eight factors that lead people to try and get killed by police, and he noted there were seven present in Levi's death, including history of conflict with the law, stressors and suicidality.

"Rodney Levi died as a result of the phenomenon known as suicide by cop," Zed told the inquest.

Police attempted to get Levi to drop two knives he was wielding and jolted him three times with a Taser. Officers testifying Monday at the inquest said at one point Levi said, "You're going to have to put a bullet in me."

They said he lunged toward an officer and was shot twice.

Zed said he believes suicide by cop is present in a third of all police shootings. He said more services are needed for mental health in New Brunswick and they must also be culturally sensitive by involving members of First Nations communities.

Levi's niece, Becky Levi, said Tuesday she doesn't believe Zed's theory.

"It was so frustrating," she told reporters after the inquest had ended for the day. "I knew my uncle Rodney. He was a lot of things, but suicide wasn't one of them.

"He had his troubles with depression but he just wouldn't do that. He tried so hard. Look at how many times he reached out for help," she said. "Instead of getting help, he was shot and killed."

Earlier Tuesday, doctors told the inquest there is a need for greater services to deal with addictions and mental health issues. The five-member coroner's jury was told that Levi, from the Metepenagiag First Nation, suffered for years with addiction to numerous drugs including crystal meth.

Retired doctor Linda Hudson said she had treated Levi since 2002, and he would attend detox on a regular basis but usually check out early and not take followup counselling.

"I think we need more resources when it comes to addictions, resources that are community-based so that people don't feel that they have to go outside their community for it," she told reporters. "We need more mental health workers in all of the communities, not just the First Nations communities."

"The mortality rate with addictions is higher than the mortality rate with cancer," she told the inquest. "It's a public health emergency."

Hudson and Dr. Sergiy Ostashko, a psychiatrist at Miramichi Regional Hospital, both said Levi suffered from paranoia and often expressed suicidal thoughts. Ostashko said there is a shortage of staff for mental health services, adding that there has been a vacant job for a psychiatrist for the last two years.

"We need enough staff to work with psychiatric patients," he told the inquiry.

He said the wait to get into psychiatric counselling in Miramichi is about 18 months and almost three years in Moncton.

Hudson was visibly shaken as she spoke about Levi and told reporters she was "heartbroken" by his death.

"I could see him spiralling down and that was difficult to see," she said. "At the basic level, he wanted to be free of his addiction and yet the craving for crystal meth is so strong that it overcomes rationality at times."

A coroner's inquest does not assign blame but issues recommendations intended to help prevent a death under similar circumstances in the future.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2021.

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press

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