Too Many, Enough
by Stephen Wittek
On the afternoon of December 17, 1998, Joe Ribeiro, a Vancouver carpenter who suffers from schizophrenia, began to feel that his medication wasn’t working properly. Realizing that he was on the brink of a schizophrenic episode, he rushed to his bedroom, locked himself in, and refused all communication in the hope that privacy might enable him to gain some small measure of control over his rapidly accelerating paranoia. The next thing he knew, his house was surrounded. A loud voice threatened violence if he didn’t come out immediately. Joe cowered in his bedroom and refused to exit, screaming that he only wanted to be left alone. An arsenal of projectile batons penetrated his bedroom door. Somebody came crashing through his bedroom window. A battering ram ripped the door off its hinges. Mortally terrified, Joe grabbed an axe and retreated to his ensuite bathroom, certain the intruders were going to kill him. Gas projectiles came sailing through the bathroom door at waist height. Joe tried to hold his breath, but the noxious gas was more than he could bear. He stumbled out of the bathroom, axe in hand, and came face to face with a gang of masked intruders. One of them opened fire with a machine gun, leaving Joe seriously wounded and unable to work for the rest of his life.
Joe Ribeiro says he wants members of the Vancouver Police Department to stop shooting people with mental illnesses.
“I believe what the police did was wrong,” Ribeiro said. “I will never be the same again. The police have ruined my life forever.”
The assault on Joe’s home was triggered when his brother contacted the Mental Health Team to help Joe cope with the paranoid attack that held him prisoner in his own bedroom. The Mental Health team called the Vancouver Police Department for assistance-just to make sure that backup was available in case things got out of control. As soon as the VPD were introduced into the situation, the relatively minor episode began to escalate into a full-scale crisis.
Standard police procedure in mental health assessment situations is to call Car 87, a special partnership unit comprised of a police officer, a psychiatric nurse, and a mental health worker. The people assigned to Car 87 don’t carry machine guns and sniper rifles or wear bulletproof vests and balaclavas. They don’t need to. They’ve been trained to deal with mentally ill people in a sympathetic, non-threatening manner.
For some unexplained reason, investigating officer, Sergeant Boutin, decided not to call Car 87 to the Ribeiro home. Instead, he ordered the Mental Health Team to back off and called for immediate assistance from the Emergency Response Team plus 15 extra cops and a pack of dogs. While a fully qualified team of mental health workers waited only a block away, The Emergency Response Team kicked Joe’s brother and mother out of the house, sent snipers to neighbouring rooftops, and set up a speaker so a hostage negotiator could begin blasting threats into Joe’s frenzied brain.
When Joe refused to leave his room, Acting Sergeant Lacon ordered the Emergency Response Team to move in on the Ribeiro home. An Arwen gun was used to fire projectile batons through Joe’s bedroom door. A hooligan tool was used to break the window. A battering ram sent the door flying. OC gas canisters were used to smoke Joe out of the bathroom.
When Joe finally exited the bathroom, coughing and extremely confused, Acting Sergeant Lacon raised his MP5 sub machine gun-a soldier’s weapon capable of firing 800 9mm cartridges in a minute-and gunned him down. None of the cops were hurt. Joe was sent to St. Paul’s hospital, where he almost died.
When the Ribeiro incident was over, many of the police officers involved immediately hired lawyers and refused to answer any questions from the press. In a blatant effort to deflect blame from the police department, the VPD charged Ribeiro with three counts of assault and one count of possession of a dangerous weapon. When the case was brought to a preliminary hearing, Judge D.I. Smythe suggested the charges against Ribeiro would not hold water, but agreed to make him stand trial if the Crown was determined to press on.
“This is an extraordinary case,” Smythe wrote. “Perhaps the police meant well, but there is reason to think the accused’s delusions could not have been made more real and substantial had police set out to work him into a frenzy. This appears to be a serious failure of communication between the police on the one hand and professionals in the field of mental health on the other, which, had it not happened, might have avoided the near disastrous events of that afternoon. I think the decision to continue with the prosecution of such a case must involve the most careful consideration.”
After months of delay, the charges against Joe Ribeiro were dropped, clearing the way for him to file charges of his own. And Ribeiro filed a Statement of Claim in BC Supreme Court seeking damages from the officers involved in his shooting, and the City of Vancouver. He wants compensation for the harm that was done to him, but more importantly, he wants the Vancouver Police to stop shooting people with mental illnesses.
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Ribeiro’s criminal lawyer, Derek Corrigan, says police conduct during the Ribeiro incident was completely unwarranted.
“This case involved the most outrageous excess of police powers, with an arrogant disregard for Mr. Ribeiro’s home and safety,” Corrigan said. “The police followed a process of escalating violence against Mr. Ribeiro and his property in order to create an inevitable confrontation. I believe they had no legal right to take the actions they did. Mr. Ribeiro attempted to avoid the confrontation and retreated from the violence, but he was eventually forced to react, with terrible consequences.”
The most maddening thing about Ribeiro’s case that is that it wasn’t an isolated incident. Vancouver area cops have shot at least six mentally ill people in the past five years. Four are dead.
On the morning of October 8, 1996, Acting Sergeant Lacon-the same-murdered Charles Albert Wilson, a man with a long history of mental illness, when he pulled out a .32-calibre pistol in an area of Stanley Park crowded with tourists.
The very next year, on the morning of December 3, 1997, police shot 67-year-old mental patient, Thomas Alcorn in the stomach in front of a crowd of horrified Granville Street shoppers. Alcorn was waving a knife and a pair of scissors. “He was begging for the officer to shoot him,” said Vancouver Police Constable, Anne Drennan. Alcorn got his wish.
On December 14, 1999, Vancouver police officers paid a visit to the downtown eastside hotel room of Sai-Ming Wai, a known schizophrenic. Frightened by the noise of people pounding on his door, Wai exited his room armed with a meat cleaver. The cops shot Wai in the chest twice. He died that night at St. Paul’s Hospital.
Only three days after Wai’s death, Donald James Mayer, a 46-year-old mental patient armed with a pair of scissors and an oxygen tank, was gunned down by police at Langley Memorial Hospital. Mayer was pronounced dead at the scene.
On April 10, 2000, Sunny Fernandez watched in horror as her schizophrenic son, Arnil, was shot in the stomach twice by Constable Derrick Gibson of the VPD. Gibson sent a letter to The Vancouver Sun the next week, attacking critics who suggested that better training might prevent Vancouver police officers from needlessly slaying the mentally ill.
“I am sick and tired of reading and hearing about how the police are at fault, or the fact that we need more training in order to deal with mentally disturbed persons,” Gibson wrote. “No one seems to care about the effect it has on me. They only seem to care about criticizing our decisions, laying the blame on the police, and recommending more and more training.”-The Vancouver Sun Oct. 17, 2000.
Sunny Fernandez responded to Gibson’s letter the following week, suggesting that Gibson’s lack of training was the reason her son almost died.
“Constable Gibson chased my son outside and shot him twice as he was backing away from officers,” Fernandez wrote. “There was a safe distance between them when the shots were fired. As a witness to the shooting, I am shocked by his claim that my son was trying to kill him. Constable Gibson expresses no guilt for what happened that night. Instead, he says that he would do the same thing again. It’s sad that he hasn’t learned from this ordeal. Vancouver has a large population of people who, through no fault of their own, suffer from mental disorders. We can do better by them than gunning them down.”
The Vancouver Sun
Oct. 27, 2000.
In the case of the Wai and Mayer shootings, a coroner’s report recommended that police initiate specific programs aimed at training members to help mentally ill people (instead of just shooting them). No such program has been established so far.
Joe Ribeiro’s civil lawyer, Frank G. Potts, says that Vancouver police need much more training or more mentally ill people will be shot in the future.
“Snipers, dogs, machine guns, and gas projectiles are not appropriate tools for dealing with mentally ill people who lock themselves in their room,” Potts said. “The Vancouver Police Department doesn’t see anything wrong with their officers using SWAT teams, who have no appropriate training, to deal with the mentally ill. Well, for the general edification of those involved in setting policy, Mr. Ribeiro, on behalf of himself and other mentally ill people, says that enough is enough. The mentally ill are sick and tired of getting shot. And since it appears that the Vancouver Police and the City can’t or won’t change their ways voluntarily, he intends to take this matter to Court. When we get to trial, the City and the Vancouver Police Department will be given an opportunity to see how their methods of dealing with the mentally ill stack up against the programs used by more enlightened police departments. And the courts will tell us how they did.”
Monetary compensation will never relieve the pain and mental anguish that Joe Ribeiro-a law-abiding, peaceful man with no criminal record-suffered because a few gung-ho commandos decided to turn a routine mental health assessment into an episode of the A-Team. Joe Ribeiro’s home was destroyed, his career was ruined, and his life was changed forever-and he’s one of the lucky ones. He’s still alive. Charles Albert Wilson, Thomas Alcorn, Sai-Ming Wai, and Donald James Mayer weren’t quite so fortunate.
The mentally ill face challenges and fears that most of us could never realise. They shouldn’t have to worry about city-sponsored SWAT teams attacking their homes with machine guns and gas. Joe Ribeiro is asking the Vancouver Police Department to stop shooting the mentally ill-a request so absurdly reasonable it approaches ironic understatement. Why are Vancouver cops shooting the mentally ill in the first place? Why on earth should we have to ask them to stop?
“It is very difficult to have a mental illness because people treat you differently,” Ribeiro said. “I don’t think I should be treated differently than anybody else just because I am mentally ill.”
Steve Wittek rolls from many weird surfaces.