Photo: Halifax Examiner

SIRT is investigating after police say they responded to a report that a man was harming himself. The police used a stun gun on him, and the man died in hospital.

According to a SIRT release:

The province’s independent Serious Incident Response Team is investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of a 28-year-old man in Dartmouth.

In the early hours of Monday, March 30, Halifax Regional Police officers responded to a call about a man who was inflicting self harm. Police arrived at the scene and entered the dwelling in an effort to ensure his safety. When police attempted to intervene to prevent the man from further harming himself, he became uncooperative. A Conducted Energy Weapon (tazer) was deployed to contain the individual. The man was transported to hospital by EHS where he succumbed to his injuries.

As a result of the incident and in accordance with the Police Act, SIRT was contacted shortly after the incident by HRP. SIRT has assumed responsibility for the investigation.

This evening, Halifax police issued this statement:

Earlier today the Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) issued a news release related to an incident involving Halifax Regional Police officers. Some media stories and news headlines have prematurely drawn the conclusion and left the impression that the deployment of a conductive energy weapon caused the death of the man. The investigation is in the early stages and there are many facts to be determined.

At this time we ask the public to refrain from forming conclusions based on these stories, and wait for SIRT to conclude its investigation into the matter.  We also remind citizens that SIRT independently investigates all serious incidents involving police actions, and there does not have to be an allegation of wrongdoing. Our thoughts are with the family and loved ones of the deceased.

According to the SIRT release, a crime was not being committed; police entered the property to prevent the man from hurting himself, but not them or others; he was “uncooperative,” but the release does not say he assaulted or threatened police in any way. In order to help this man, they came armed to subdue him. It appears his attempts to resist their help cost him his life.

In 2018, SIRT investigated after the RCMP responded to a call involving a teenage girl who had ingested drugs. The police entered the girl’s bedroom and tased her “for more than fifteen minutes” according to testimony from her mother. The mother said she called 911 because she wanted paramedics to keep her daughter safe. She told the court:

I never called the police, and I regret to this day that I ever let them in the house. I hope to God I never have to deal with a police officer again.

After SIRT cleared the officers, Justice Curran called for an investigation into the officers’ conduct.

In 2007, 30 hours before his death, the Halifax police tased Howard Hyde five times. Hyde lived with schizophrenia. Hyde’s family called the police for help. The 2010 inquiry ruled that the tasing was not the cause of his death. However, Justice Anne Derrick recommended that “conducted energy weapons (CEWs) should not be used to immobilize emotionally disturbed people unless crisis intervention techniques have failed.”

Despite Derrick’s recommendation, the police have continued to use the weapons on people experiencing mental and emotional crises.

In December, Halifax police tased a Black man on Quinpool Road.

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The police are not trained mental health workers. They are not doctors, nurses, social workers, paramedics, or any other kind of medical expert. They are not trained in public health. Over and over again, when they have been called by families to help people in crisis, they have responded by harming and even killing the people they are supposed to be helping.

And now, at the very same time as the death of a man who was allegedly self-harming is being investigated, we are supposed to trust that the police are an appropriate response to the public health crisis of COVID-19.

We do not know what happened when the police entered this man’s residence. We do not know yet what is meant by the phrase “the police tried to prevent the man from hurting himself.” We do not know if this intervention was verbal or physical, whether the man was scared, or what is meant by him being “uncooperative.”

What we do know is that the majority of Canadians killed by police are people experiencing mental illness. We know from this that the police are not equipped to handle these situations. We surely know that the solution to self-harm is not to cause further harm by discharging a weapon.

On March 22, when the province declared a State of Emergency, advocates raised concerns about the impact on vulnerable communities when we criminalize health issues. Particular concern was raised about Black people who already face racial profiling and heightened surveillance, people living with mental illnesses, the homeless population, and other people deemed to be outside the acceptable “public.”

In a statement released on March 25 and sent to the premier, justice minister, the police chief, and other health and justice officials, activists and academics wrote in part:

We are particularly concerned that current practices do not re-enact documented historical and ongoing patterns of state surveillance, policing, and prosecution that disproportionately target Black, Indigenous, and other racialized peoples, people living in poverty, and homeless, the mentally ill, and other vulnerable groups.

The death of this 28-year-old man is not connected to the new measures around policing and COVID-19. But it clearly demonstrates how calling the police to solve a health issue places people at risk. The new powers granted to police allow them to access property, to stop and question people, to demand information about health, and the power to fine and even potentially arrest those they feel are breaking self-isolation laws.

In a piece written for Now Magazine, Alexander McClelland argues that “we can’t police our way out of a pandemic.” As the history of criminalizing HIV transmission shows us:

…[D]eputizing police in the name of public safety only undermines public health responses and violates human rights. 

One expert who has critiqued the public call for increased policing powers and presence as a solution to public health matters is OmiSoore Dryden, the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies held in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University. Dryden is particularly concerned that as self-isolation intensifies, people will need more mental health support. People are more likely at this time to be in crisis, and to be seeking help:

Often when we have a loved one in a health crisis we may feel we do not have the skills necessary to help them, so we call the police. However, police are not the answer. They are not properly trained to provide the support necessary, and their presence will often make the situation worse. We have seen in more than one occasion the attendance of police ending with the death of the person in crisis.

My great concerns with the states of emergency, include increased policing and surveillance and how to maintain our mental health. Our mental health must become a priority in this COVID-19 pandemic. Phone and virtual help with therapists will be useful. But we also need mental health emergency response teams, staffed with ethno-racially diverse social workers and therapists.

In terms of increased policing, Black people are already under heightened surveillance, as was documented in the Wortley report. What happens during COVID-19? How will police respond to Black people who they deem to be “unco-operative?” I’m very concerned that with this increased policing that street checks will become even more rampant within Black communities.

It is important to know that we cannot police ourselves out of a pandemic.

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As people are stuck inside for long periods of time, with appointments cancelled, isolated from others, in potentially abusive situations, we are supposed to trust that the authorities have our best interests in mind. We are supposed to believe we can call them. We are supposed to trust that the police will keep us safe and well.

But once again, the people supposed to protect us from harm may do us the most harm of all.

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El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. This is spot on.

    Everyone should have the mental health crisis line in their phones:

    Mental Health Crisis Line
    1-888-429-8167 (toll-free)
    Available 24 hours, seven days a week

    1. In the HRM the Mobile Mental Health Crisis Line sends a police officer, who is not dedicated to mental health calls, with their people when they respond to a call in person.