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ASIRT clears police in death of Calgary man during mental health call | CBC News

Alberta’s police watchdog says it found no grounds to believe Calgary officers had committed an offence when a man died after being restrained during a mental health call three years ago. 

In its report released Friday about the April 2020 incident, the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team said the man’s mother called 911 for medical assistance as the man was having a psychotic episode. He had schizophrenia and thought he was on fire. 

Two paramedics arrived and waited for police officer backup due to safety concerns, ASIRT said. The agency said the man was lying face down when one officer and the two paramedics arrived and helped him to his feet. 

“They tried to speak with [the man] but he took an apparent aggressive posture and lunged forward,” the report said. 

A review of video footage from a body-worn camera described the man’s movement as “steps or stumbles forward” toward one of the paramedics. 

The report said a police officer used the man’s forward momentum and took him to the ground. It said the officer “laid on [him] for a relatively short period of time,” in a semi-face down position, until a second officer arrived. 

A photo of a piece of paper that says ASIRT.
ASIRT investigated following a man’s death after being restrained by police at a home on Erlton Road S.W. in April 2020. (ASIRT)

The second officer used his baton to pry the man’s arm out from under his body and he was handcuffed. 

One of the paramedics realized the man had vomited and they placed him in a recovery position, ASIRT said. He was brought to an ambulance and paramedics started trying to resuscitate him as he wasn’t breathing. 

The man was brought to hospital and was pronounced dead, ASIRT said. 

Following an autopsy, the medical examiner initially determined the immediate cause of death to be excited delirium, with schizophrenia and the struggle during police restraint as significant conditions contributing to death but not causally related, ASIRT said. 

Excited delirium is a highly contentious term that describes a state of agitation, aggression and distress generally linked to drug use or mental illness. It’s been used as an explanation for sudden, unexpected deaths during interactions with police.

“Excited delirium as a stand-alone cause of death has been questioned by some in the medical field,” the report said.

“The medical examiner who conducted this autopsy was subsequently consulted about his report, and he advised that his findings during the autopsy remain the same, but he would now describe the immediate cause of death to be complications of schizophrenia and struggle during police restraint.” 

The report also details bruises and scrapes to the man’s arms and legs. 

“There were several areas of deep bruising to the scalp and upper back. There were thermal injuries to the right hand. A layered examination of the neck showed several areas of bruising to the muscles of the neck, but there were no injuries to the bones or cartilaginous structures of the neck,” the report said. 

ASIRT said there were a number of civilian witnesses, including the man’s mother, who saw the officer take the man to the ground.

ASIRT said she did not feel the officers used excessive force. Both paramedics also said they felt the use of force appeared reasonable. 

In its conclusion, ASIRT said the only physical contact was taking him to the ground and prying his arm out from underneath him.

“No other ‘force’ was applied to [the man], and the finding of the medical examiner confirms that while [his] death was untimely and tragic, there are no reasonable grounds, nor reasonable suspicion, to believe that any officers committed an offence,” the report said. 

The report notes that one officer was wearing his body-worn camera, but the officer who later came onto the scene did not turn his on, so there is no video from him. 

That is a breach of Calgary police policy, said Tom Engel, the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association’s policing committee chair, and it means there’s no clear image of what happened that day.

“That jumps out at me because what happened was that officer, by not using the body-worn camera, deprived ASIRT and the public of very important evidence,” he said. 

A man in a suit holds a piece of paper.
Edmonton criminal defence lawyer Tom Engel says he has questions after ASIRT’s report. (CBC)

He also has questions around the cause of death and said ASIRT wasn’t clear. He said ASIRT also doesn’t mention how heavy the officer was who laid on the man. 

The original cause of death from the medical examiner was excited delirium, a term which Engel said has been vigorously challenged and undermined. 

“The medical examiner revises the findings to say the immediate cause of death to be complications of schizophrenia, struggle during police restraint,” Engel said. 

“I’ve been at this for a long time. I’ve never heard of death being caused by complications of schizophrenia. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Now, struggle during police restraint? Yes, I have heard of deaths being caused by that,” he said. 

He added that he hopes Calgary police will do their own internal investigation into the matter.

ASIRT investigates serious allegations of police misconduct and when death or serious injury may have been caused by police.

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