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Protesters hold banners with a photograph of Myles Gray, who died following a confrontation with several police officers in 2015, before the start of a coroner's inquest into his death, in Burnaby, B.C., on April 17.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The head of the watchdog agency that wanted Vancouver constables charged in Myles Gray’s 2015 death says police across Canada need better training to de-escalate tense situations with people in crisis.

Ronald MacDonald is a former Crown prosecutor who heads British Columbia’s Independent Investigations Office (IIO), which probes deaths or serious injuries at the hands of police. He testified Thursday at the coroner’s inquest into the 33-year-old entrepreneur’s death that, too often, officers fail to de-escalate a situation or they resort to using force too soon during an interaction.

Mr. MacDonald, who said he has overseen investigations of more than 1,000 police misconduct cases in B.C. and Nova Scotia, also said officers across the country need to be taught how to think critically in the moment to better assess danger and to refrain from immediately using force when someone fails to comply with a command to get down on the ground.

“Those are examples of where our training is falling down and where we can do better as a society in the training of police,” said Mr. MacDonald, who took over the agency in 2017.

Last week, officers testified they responded to a call that hot August afternoon and three of them first confronted an agitated Mr. Gray in a secluded backyard, demanding he get on the ground. He refused and was hit with pepper spray when he moved toward the trio of constables, one officer testified. A brawl ensued and four more officers soon arrived and engaged in a struggle. Mr. Gray died when his heart stopped as police pinned him on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind his back, the inquest has heard. He suffered a broken nose, eye socket, rib and voice box, as well as brain bleeding and a ruptured testicle.

Coroner’s jurors must determine “how, when, where and by what means” Mr. Gray died, and make recommendations on how to prevent similar deaths. The inquest’s other core goal is ensuring “public confidence that the circumstances surrounding the death of an individual will not be overlooked, concealed or ignored.”

Mr. MacDonald said he has been a long-time proponent of equipping police with body cameras to better understand what happens during incidents like the death of Mr. Gray.

The IIO recommended charges against the officers, but the Crown prosecutors office announced two years ago that it was hamstrung by the “incomplete” and “inconsistent” accounts police had given IIO investigators. The seven officers who first responded to arrest Mr. Gray all remain on active duty, but still face professional misconduct penalties for using too much force. Six of them face neglect of duty allegations that they failed to take proper notes and submit them promptly.

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Matthew Orde, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on Mr. Gray, also testified Thursday that body cameras on constables would help him and other medical professionals piece together the reasons someone might die after interacting with police.

Dr. Orde testified a “perfect storm” of factors led to Mr. Gray’s death, but concluded that he died as a result of a cardiac arrest, complicated by police pinning him down onto his stomach and handcuffing him behind his back. Other factors to consider, he added, included Mr. Gray being hit multiple times with pepper spray, being struck many times by fists and police batons, being put in chokeholds, as well as the agitated – and abnormal state he was in that day.

“In the context of someone who’s extremely fatigued, [whose] body is fully ramped up … I think these issues would be enough to tip him over the edge,” Dr. Orde testified. “I don’t think he would have died when he did, had it not been for the police interaction on that day.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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