A coroner’s jury has made a dozen recommendations after probing the suicide of Vancouver police Const. Nicole Chan, who died during a mental health crisis after having relationships with two senior officers.
The recommendations include that all the department’s officers receive mandatory yearly psychological checks regardless of rank or where they work.
During seven days of testimony, the inquest heard that Chan died on Jan. 27, 2019, a day after she left the hospital.
The jury heard that before Chan’s death, she accused one of the two officers of extorting her to continue a sexual relationship.
Evidence presented at the inquest included a victim impact letter from Chan about Sgt. David Van Patten, saying she was sexually assaulted by him in his apartment. The letter went to New Westminster police, who were investigating allegations against Van Patten, and the inquest heard the Crown later declined to pursue charges against the officer.
The jury heard that rumours were swirling within the department about Chan and her relationships.
Jury members suggested the Vancouver Police Department recognize rumours and gossip as an example of unprofessional behaviour in its respectful workplace policy and ensure all officers attend mandatory, rigorous in-person training on that policy.
The inquest heard that Chan had a history of mental health issues and potential suicide attempts.
In its recommendations, the jury asked B.C.’s minister of health to consider integrating a database containing medical records of patients who have suicidal ideas across all health authorities.
The jury also recommended that attending doctors at the Vancouver General Hospital’s access and assessment centre have direct communication with paramedics, police officers and/or friends and family members.
It also suggested the hospital ensure a process is in place for attending doctors to take phone calls from community health-care providers.
In the letter released during the inquest, Chan detailed her anguish that Van Patten had “taken advantage” of her in an “imbalance of power” while she was severely depressed. Chan said she was already suffering from mental health challenges, but the sexual assault aggravated her condition, stalled her career and affected her ability to maintain relationships.
Chan, who was on stress leave at the time, died three weeks after the letter was sent.
Van Patten was dismissed from the force about a year after her death. It came following a Police Act investigation that concluded four allegations of discreditable conduct against him were substantiated.
Sgt. Corey Bech, who described himself as a friend and mentor of Chan’s, told the inquest on Monday that he believed the biggest systemic change the department could make would be mandatory mental health check-ins for all first responders.
Christine McLean, who works in human resources at Vancouver Police Department, told the inquest Tuesday that officers in high-stress units, like homicide and sex crimes, who are exposed to “more disturbing” experiences have an annual mandatory session with a psychologist. However, she noted the visits are not mandatory for all officers.
“I think that there could be a benefit for police officers to have an annual high-stress debrief with a psychologist, regardless of what unit you’re in,” she said.
The inquest heard Chan was apprehended under the Mental Health Act the day before her death and brought to Vancouver General Hospital.
Bech testified that he spoke to her the night before she died and that she believed she would never return to work because human resource officers went to the hospital. Chan was also anxious about workplace rumours and angry that Van Patten was able to keep his job while she thought she would lose hers, he said.
The Chan family’s lawyer, Gloria Ng, said in a statement that the family is very grateful for the jury’s hard work and “very strongly worded recommendations.”
The family found the recommendations around psychological check-ins, the database for medical records, workplace training, and direct communication with doctors “very impactful,” Ng said.
“The Chan family feels that the inquest gave a voice to Nicole and it thanks the community for its support,” she said.
“They hope that the recommendations will be seen as a call to action for the various institutions and will prevent any other family from going through what they have gone through.”
Vancouver Police Chief Constable Adam Palmer called the inquest “powerful, emotional, and thought-provoking.”
“Her life and career were tragically cut short, however, Nicole’s death has highlighted the importance of our conversations about mental health and accountability in policing. These conversations are never over,” Palmer said in a statement issued Wednesday.
“Though we will take time to review the jury’s recommendations, we remain committed to ensuring Nicole’s death continues to lead to positive change within policing and for anyone struggling with their mental health.”
While a coroner’s jury can’t place blame, its job is to provide recommendations to prevent deaths in similar circumstances.
Here are the 12 recommendations from the jury:
To: Vancouver General Hospital
1. Recommend that police ensure that the attending doctor has direct communications with paramedics, police officers and/or friends and family members in attendance.
2. Review physician’s ability to access historical patient information from all sources.
3. Develop a process to ensure the attending doctor can take phone calls from community health-care providers.
To: Chief constable, Vancouver Police Department
4. Mandatory psychological clinical interviews should be part of every potential police officer’s recruitment process whereby the psychologist’s recommendations are considered.
5. Ensure respectful workplace training is mandatory, rigorous, in-person and on a regular basis for all ranks of police officers.
6. Training specific to promotions should include formal administrative management training.
7. Have a human resource or peer support case representative in regular contact with all employees with mental health issues, and the family and/or support circle if permitted by the employee, to establish and build a relationship and provide continuity of care.
8. Annual psychological check-ins with a psychologist should be mandatory for all police officers.
9. The respectful workplace policy should recognize rumours and gossip as an example of unprofessional behaviour.
10. Police officers in the human resources department should receive specific training relative to the duties of a human resources professional.
11. Ensure each section within the human resources department works interdependently rather than independently of each other.
To: Minister of health
12. Consider integrating a specific database containing medical records of patients who have suicidal ideations across all health authorities.
— By Brieanna Charlebois in Vancouver