Canada: Inquest on police shooting death of Edmond Wai-Kong Yu

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Sat, 01 May 1999 01:41:39 +0900


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YLE17.html
FWD  Toronto Star column - April 17, 1999

IGNORE AN INQUEST AND WE'RE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT

By  Jim Coyle

AT THE OUTSET of a coroner's inquest, its purpose is always explained. To
determine the facts - the who, when, where, how and by what means - of a
mysterious or seemingly avoidable death. To focus community attention and
ensure no such death is concealed or ignored. And, probably most important,
to recommend ways such tragedies could be prevented from happening again.

   For the coroner's jury that delivered its recommendations yesterday
after an inquest into the police shooting death two years ago of a
35-year-old mentally ill man aboard a TTC bus, the first part was easy.

   Who: Edmond Wai-Kong Yu.

   When: Feb. 20, 1997. 5:30 p.m.

   Where: Queens Quay and Spadina Ave.

   How: Gunshot wounds to the head and neck.

   By what means: Homicide.

   It was simple enough to determine the facts that ended the life of a
one-time medical student who had deteriorated into mental illness and
homelessness.

   The inquest heard how the paranoid schizophrenic man had been labelled
``a loon'' by police responding to a minor assault on the bus. How he had
brandished a hammer when officers tried to handcuff him. It even heard in
gruesome detail how Edmond Yu's blood smelled, how it spurted after he was
shot dead in response to that threat.

   It's the rest of an inquest's task - the prevention of similar tragedies
- that was and will be trickier. For, by its own appraisal, the jury found
the Yu case to involve social issues of enormous scope: mental health,
relevant law, policing, police training, the use of force, crisis
resolution, ethnic diversity, housing, income and employment. And much on
the mind of some observers was the fact we had been through much of this
before.

   ``Perhaps the most tragic aspect of Edmond Yu's death is that it could
have been and should have been prevented,'' said Louis Sokolov, lawyer for
the Yu family.

   ``Five years ago, a jury in this very building, sitting in those very
same seats made recommendations strikingly similar to those made by the
jury (yesterday). Had those recommendations been carried out, Edmond Yu may
well not have been killed.''

   That inquest looked into the 1988 death of 44-year-old Lester Donaldson.
Like Yu, once successful; like Yu, a visible minority; like Yu, mentally
ill; like Yu, shot dead by police in a confrontation almost certainly
avoidable.

   ``What we hope is that this time we'll accomplish what wasn't
accomplished five years ago,'' Sokolov said. ``That this time the police
will listen and institute adequate training of police officers.

   ``It's a bitter irony that more effort goes into giving police officers
better weapons than giving them the tools they need not to use the
weapons.''

   So again the recommendations are made - this time, it is suggested, to
be backed with the force of legislation - for annual crisis-resolution and
use-of-force training for all police officers in the province.

   ``The mandating of this course by legislation will prevent it from being
discontinued in the future,'' the jury said. ``We feel that it should be an
integral part of police training on an annual basis.''

   Which is another way of saying that police didn't take the Donaldson
recommendations seriously enough; and that no one should die for a minor
assault or for waving a hammer.

   One development at the Yu inquest that did not have the sense of
déjà vu was that, for the first time, a psychiatric
consumer-survivor group was represented at the proceedings. And yesterday
it was claiming some victories.

  ``The jury had an opportunity to hear from this community about what the
community actually needs as opposed to what the funders want to fund or the
service providers want to deliver,'' said Jennifer Chambers of the Queen
Street Patients Council.

  As a result, the jury recommended provision of safe houses for
psychiatric patients, more affordable housing, provision of jobs with
flexible or part-time hours that would offer the dignity of work.

  The jury urged the health ministry to provide funding for research into
the cause and treatment of schizophrenia, including research into
non-medical, non-drug alternatives. It recommended ethno-specific
psychiatric services of the sort from which Edmond Yu seemed to benefit.
And it recommended public education programs to help reduce the fear and
stereotyping of psychiatric patients.

  ``We think that the police, like other members of the general public,
react out of fear when they encounter people who have a psychiatric
label,'' Chambers said.

  ``The result is that overreaction happens and dangerous situations ensue.''

  For Katherine Yu, the slain man's sister, the jury's recommendations
addressed most of the major issues raised at the inquest.

  ``Hopefully, with all these recommendations we will prevent future
similar deaths,'' she said. ``I just want to look forward, instead of
looking backwards.''

  Which for Edmond Yu's family is fair enough.

  For the rest of us, the best lessons might be found in doing both.

[Jim Coyle's column usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.]

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