Diane Vanderwal had the number to a local crisis line taped to the fridge of her Exeter, Ont., home on the night of Dec. 3, 2019, when her son Wade began showing signs of mental distress. The number was on a pamphlet she’d received from a doctor, which she’d saved in case of an emergency.
But on this night, Wade, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, manic depression and bipolar disorder, had locked her out of the house – and she didn’t have the number memorized.
Worried about her 44-year-old son, and unsure of what supports were available, Ms. Vanderwal and a neighbour decided to call 911 for help. Within three minutes of police arriving, Wade was dead, shot 11 times in the driveway of his family’s suburban home.
One year later, the province’s Special Investigations Unit cleared the Ontario Provincial Police officers of any criminal wrongdoing in his death.
But Ms. Vanderwal and her daughter Sandy Heyink say they believe their loss highlights the need for a rethink of our societal response to mental-health crises.
“It was so unnecessary,” Ms. Vanderwal said of her son’s killing. “Just so unnecessary.”
There’d been signs, in the lead-up to December, 2019, that Wade was unwell. Normally an avid walker, he wasn’t going out as much. He was telling bizarre stories that his sister knew couldn’t be true. And they suspected he’d stopped taking his anti-psychotic medication after he started taking his pills into his bedroom.
On the afternoon of Dec. 3, Ms. Vanderwal had been running errands in preparation for a memorial service for her brother-in-law, Wade’s uncle Harry. The two men had been close, and the loss had hit Wade hard.
When she arrived home around 6:30 p.m., Ms. Vanderwal was surprised to see a neighbour on their front porch, speaking with her son. Wade was paranoid, talking about the military and police, convinced that the army was coming to his house. As Ms. Vanderwal got out of her car, he told her to leave.
“Go for a drive, Mom,” she recalls him telling her.
Sensing his distress, she and her neighbour retreated for a few minutes before checking on him again. He was inside and through the door, they could see a flame on the gas stove behind him, a bag of cigarettes sitting on top of the lit burner. They asked him to come outside, but he refused.
Unsure of who else they could call, they agreed to call 911. While they were also concerned about the smoke from the stove fire, the neighbour told the 911 dispatcher by the end of her call that she did not see flames. Their primary concern was that Wade was in crisis.
Ms. Vanderwal says the responding police officers acted as though the entire house was ablaze, pulling up with lights flashing and sirens blaring and then immediately heading for the door with a battering ram.
At some point in those initial moments of chaos, she says, Wade had grabbed a hatchet.
“Through the glass panel of the door, [subject officer #2] could see [Wade] leaning on the window, arms crossed, silent and clutching an axe. Smoke was visible in the air behind him,” the SIU report says.
As the officer prepared to knock down the door, the local fire chief ushered Ms. Vanderwal away from the house.
“And I thought, you know, ‘Okay, I better do that,’ ” she recalled. “‘They’re professionals, they’ll know how to handle it.’ ”
She expected that they too would try to talk to Wade. But the door was quickly busted open with the battering ram. It was then, according to the SIU report, that Wade came out holding the axe.
One officer pointed his gun at Wade. A second officer tased him. But Wade was “unfazed,” according to the SIU report, and “proceeded to step off the porch and began to advance toward the three officers, who had formed in a semi-circle pattern” a few metres away. When he did not drop the axe or get on the ground, two of the officers began shooting.
Ms. Vanderwal was still walking away when she heard the shots. She turned to the fire chief: “Those aren’t real bullets, right?”
She looked back and saw Wade lying on his side on the driveway, the axe still in his hand. He was tased a second time, and when that only seemed to tighten his clutch on the axe, one of the officers fired another round of shots.
Ms. Vanderwal was stunned. She had barely made it to the sidewalk. How had this escalated so quickly?
In 2020, police fired shots at at least 65 people across Canada, 36 of whom were killed, according to University of Toronto PhD candidate Erick Laming, who keeps a national database of police shootings and firearm discharges as part of his criminology research.
Charges against police officers are rare in these cases, he said – partly because there are protections for law enforcement under the Criminal Code, which says they may use reasonable (and even lethal) force if they believe on reasonable grounds that they are protecting themselves or others from imminent death or serious harm.
Criminal lawyer Daniel Brown says that while it’s true the SIU often concludes that an officer was likely acting in self defence, he is “always surprised that they take this decision away from a judge or jury to decide … in any other situation, [the question] of whether there is a credible defence is left to the judge to decide.”
Separate from the question of criminal liability, Mr. Laming says that more nuanced conversations are needed about the approaches police take, if we want to prevent future deaths.
“If police are cleared from any wrongdoing, this doesn’t necessarily mean that their decisions and response were 100 per cent effective or even correct,” Mr. Laming said. “Obviously every case is different but we need to look at the context.”
Mr. Laming says Canadians should not take for granted that such reports are public, as they are in Ontario. In some other provinces or territories, he said, “people aren’t afforded that opportunity.” Members of the public should read and scrutinize these reports, he says, as part of the accountability process.
As mental-health calls continue to surge each year, critics have questioned whether armed police are the right people to dispatch to mental-health calls. Even the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) has said they do not believe police should be the first responders in a mental-health crisis.
After a year of unprecedented global protests against police brutality and racism, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May, police forces across North America have faced calls to defund their budgets and reallocate the money to social services. As a result, many forces are indeed looking at potential alternative models, including for responding to mental-health calls.
In an e-mail, OPP spokeswoman Carolle Dionne said a mandated internal review of the circumstances relating to the tragic Vanderwal case continues: “We remain committed to improving outcomes for those with mental health needs in the communities we serve.”
On the night before the one-year anniversary of her son’s death, Ms. Vanderwal received a phone call from the SIU, letting her know that no charges would be laid against the officers. “It was very cruel,” she says of the timing.
The family nevertheless pressed on with plans for a get-together in Wade’s memory. On Dec. 3, they ate Wade’s favourite foods, and played one of his favourite card games, Chase the Ace. His sister Sandy put together a slideshow of family photos and videos. They remembered his fondness for his cat, and the bear hugs he was famous for giving his nieces and nephews. How he could inhale a full bag of peanut M&Ms on his own.
But as the evening came to an end and people started checking their phones, they saw the case was back in the media. The SIU report had come out.
Though SIU Director Joseph Martino questioned in his report “whether the officers, having backtracked a distance away from the home … could have continued their retreat rather than shooting when they did,” he ultimately concluded that they were “[not] derelict in failing to do so.”
Mr. Martino acknowledged that what Wade needed more than anything else that evening was medical care for his “acute mental distress.”
“That, however, was not going to be possible unless immediate steps were taken to reach the Complainant, who in his altered state of mind had locked himself in his home and was refusing to come out with a small fire burning in the kitchen,” he wrote. “In the circumstances, I cannot fault the officers for forcing the door open when they did. Nor am I able, for the foregoing reasons, to come to a reasonable belief that the officers were criminally responsible for the train of events that followed.”
Ms. Vanderwal disagrees. The police didn’t even attempt to talk to her son, she says.
“He was only a danger to himself inside,” Sandy added. “And by battering open the door, they assured his death.”
One of the most devastating parts of all this, Sandy said, has been reading media reports that described her brother as an “axe-wielding man,” as though he’d been running down the street with the weapon. Even when he was in distress, they say, Wade was never violent. Ms. Vanderwal never feared for her safety.
“He didn’t go and get the hatchet until he saw them approach. And he never went out to attack until he was attacked, and felt threatened himself,” Sandy said. Given her brother’s paranoia around law enforcement and state institutions, she believes the lights and sirens were triggering his response.
As they read news story after news story about other families across Canada who lost loved ones to police shootings in 2020, they have become increasingly convinced that systemic change is needed to the ways mental-health crises are handled.
A proper mental-health response could have saved her brother’s life, Sandy says.
In the year since Wade was killed, his family has connected with the team behind the Toronto-based Reach Out Response Network (RORN), a mental-health advocacy group.
Inspired by a similar program in Eugene, Ore. called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), RORN’s co-founder Rachel Bromberg has advocated for their project to be integrated into the 911 dispatch system, and available to respond 24/7. Ideally, there would be a dedicated three-digit number, such as 811, that people can call in a crisis.
For Sandy, an easily accessible number like that – one that her mom could’ve had memorized that night – would be critical. She does not believe her brother died because of his mental-health issues. He died, she believes, because police were their only option in the crisis.
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