A coroner’s jury has recommended that all Vancouver Police Department officers be required to complete regular and rigorous in-person training on how to stop workplace harassment after hearing testimony at an inquest into the 2019 suicide of a former constable.
During the week-long hearing, jurors were told that Nicole Chan, who joined the force at 19, had her mental health and career prospects severely impacted by sexual relationships with two senior officers and the ensuing rumours about her that still swirl through the VPD.
Sgt. Corey Bech, a mentor and friend to Constable Chan who spoke to her in the hours before she took her own life, testified that the force offers very little interactive training on ensuring a respectful workplace. His colleague testified that supervisors get a seven-day training course on how to oversee constables. But the jury also cited testimony from Christine McLean, the force’s civilian director of labour and employee relations, that even officers working with the force’s human resources section do not have specialized training.
The jury recommended VPD promotions be tied to officers completing formal administrative and management courses and that human resources training be required of all staff in the force’s HR division.
The jury acknowledged the debilitating effects of workplace rumours on Constable Chan by recommending that the VPD’s respectful workplace policy be updated to recognize gossip about colleagues as unprofessional behaviour.
“The HR officers indicated they did not have any education in human-resources management while being assigned to that section,” the lead juror said Wednesday afternoon. (The BC Coroners Service does not identify the names of its jurors at inquests.)
Shortly after the jury’s unanimous recommendations were released Wednesday, Chief Constable Adam Palmer issued a statement saying his department is now reviewing the guidance and remains committed to ensuring her death leads to positive changes.
“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,” his statement said. “The coroner’s inquest into Nicole’s death has been powerful, emotional, and thought-provoking. It has deeply impacted us all.”
Constable Chan’s family filed a civil lawsuit last year against the B.C. government, the City of Vancouver, the Vancouver Police Board, the police department, its union and four officers. The challenge alleges that then-sergeant David Van Patten began extorting her for sex soon after she approached him for career advice in January, 2016.
A notice of discontinuance was filed in the case in September relating to one of the officers and none of the allegations have been proven in court.
During the last two years of her life, Constable Chan was on stress leave from the department and the inquest heard she was increasingly angry about the lack of ramifications for her alleged abuser, who worked in the human-resources department and was connected to many other senior officers.
Both the senior officers she complained about were investigated under the provincial Police Act, with Mr. Van Patten getting fired a year after her death and the other eventually resigning.
Another of the jury’s dozen recommendations asked that the VPD start requiring “all officers, all ranks and all sections” to have an appointment every year with a psychologist. The lead juror noted that Ms. McLean testified only those officers working in the major crimes or forensics units have to get these regular checkups.
The VPD should also do a better job of screening its recruits by making them do mandatory interviews with a clinical psychologist whose recommendations are considered before they are hired, the jury recommended.
Last week, Randy Mackoff, a clinical psychologist for the department, testified that Constable Chan had told him about her past suicide attempts and ranked nearly three times higher than average on a rating scale used to assess mental health concerns. He testified that she never disclosed to him any misconduct by other police officers in the department. Instead, he said he heard about these improper relationships “primarily from press reports.”
The inquest heard that a new team of coworkers was available to offer mental health support in 2019, but it was unclear if Constable Chan knew about this program. To close this gap in care, the jury recommended that a human resources member or a peer support worker be in regular contact with any officer battling mental health issues.
The jury also asked the minister of health to consider creating a database that would compile medical records of patients with suicidal ideation so that it is accessible to professionals in all health authorities. The inquest heard testimony from the hospital doctor who saw her hours before she killed herself that access to more information about her past mental health problems would have helped him better assess her.
– with a file from The Canadian Press