An RCMP officer in Burnaby, B.C., who was part of the force’s mental health and homeless outreach team, was fatally stabbed Tuesday morning while she and a city employee visited a man camping in a park.
Constable Shaelyn Yang, 31, and a parks board worker arrived at Broadview Park, located not far from Vancouver’s eastern edge shortly after 11 a.m. During an altercation, Constable Yang was killed and the homeless man – now a suspect in her murder – was shot and sent to hospital, senior Mounties told a news conference Tuesday evening.
Paramedics responded but Constable Yang was pronounced dead at hospital, said Chief Superintendent Graham De La Gorgendiere, the commander of the RCMP’s detachment in Burnaby. Constable Yang joined the force in December of 2019.
“Her death while on duty and in service to our community is both senseless and tragic,” said Chief Supt. De La Gorgendiere. “Working with mental health and homelessness can be challenging, but Shaelyn embraced that job with passion.”
The officer’s death happened three days after municipal elections in the region focused on issues of public safety and the growing number of homeless people and tent encampments in many communities. The province’s NDP government has been under pressure to tackle public safety issues, both from municipal governments and the opposition Liberal party, and the stabbing will heighten those concerns.
Police released few details about what prompted the altercation and how it unfolded, instead noting that Metro Vancouver’s regional homicide unit is now investigating the officer’s death. The Independent Investigations Office of B.C., which investigates cases where someone is seriously injured or killed during an interaction with police, is also examining the shooting of the suspect.
Asked whether it was common for Constable Yang to not have a police partner in her role on the outreach team, Chief Supt. De La Gorgendiere said it depended on circumstances.
“We look at risk assessments for the types of duties they are doing,” he said. “Unfortunately, at this time, she was on her own. So it’s not abnormal, but there’s an ongoing risk assessment that would have to take place.”
Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley told reporters that the city employee at the scene of the crime was not physically hurt but remains “deeply shaken.”
“The worst thing that can happen is when a member shows up for duty in the morning and doesn’t go home in the evening,” said Mr. Hurley, a former firefighter. “It’s going to take all of us and all of the members of the RCMP a long time to recover from that.”
Chief Supt. De La Gorgendiere described Constable Yang as a long-time community volunteer in her hometown of Richmond who decided to join the RCMP before the pandemic. He said her colleagues loved working with her and she was “very, very good” at her complicated job.
The province’s Solicitor-General, Mike Farnworth, called her death “tragic and horrific.”
“Every day, we ask thousands of men and women in uniform in this province to do their duty, keeping our communities safe, keeping the public safe, knowing full well it’s an extremely dangerous job,” Mr. Farnworth said.
On Tuesday afternoon, police had cordoned off the area, which is adjacent to Broadview Park and the office of the Burnaby School District, with yellow police tape.
Zulekha Karim, who lives across the street from the park, said she believed the tent had been there for a few weeks.
“It was very tiny,” she said. “It was sitting right there, a little one, yellow one. I didn’t think anybody can fit in there.”
David Eby, who is expected to become the province’s next premier, has been blamed by the opposition for a “catch and release” justice system that has seen prolific offenders consistently released on bail, and a rise in some urban centres of unprovoked, violent attacks on strangers. Mr. Eby stepped down as attorney-general for his campaign to replace Premier John Horgan, who is resigning.
Just hours before the incident in Burnaby, Vancouver police announced they had arrested a repeat offender for a new crime – just two hours after being released from jail. Mohammed Majidpour had been charged with assault after a random attack on a woman who was hit over the head with a pole.
Public safety concerns were also a top issue in municipal elections across B.C. last weekend. Voters tossed out more than three dozen incumbent mayors, in part underscoring their discontent with efforts to tackle crime and disorder.
Before the press conference, Mr. Hurley told The Globe and Mail it would be unfortunate if people started politicizing the officer’s death and suggesting that somehow the dozens of homeless camps around the province could all be easily shut down.
“For anyone just to think that there are no camps in certain areas, they’re not living in the reality of today’s situation,” he said, adding Burnaby tries to ensure that camps don’t get set up. “We make an effort to find them somewhere to go. We do move camps along as quickly as we can. The reality is there’s a lot of homeless people out there.”
Carol-Ann Flanagan, executive director of Burnaby non-profit Society to End Homelessness, said local Mounties have worked hard to develop relationships with the people experiencing homelessness in her city. Cooling centres operated in the city this summer saw 522 homeless people attend over 23 days, Ms. Flanagan said.
Normally, when an encampment of any size is discovered in Burnaby by the authorities, her organization and other non-profits get an e-mail. That didn’t happen with the site involved in Tuesday’s incident, she said.
As long as there is a dearth of shelter space and affordable housing, people will find safety by camping together, she said. Ms. Flanagan added that most of the people sleeping outside are not violent or aggressive, they “simply want to live.”
With a report from Frances Bula in Vancouver