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B.C. police watchdog raises concerns after prisoner dies of alcohol withdrawal in police cells

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B.C.'s police watchdog says Mounties did not act negligently after a man died of acute alcohol withdrawal while in a jail cell on Vancouver Island last year.

Instead, Ronald J. MacDonald, director of the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. (IIO), says the incident highlights an "outdated" practice in the province's police and medical systems.


In the early hours of April 23, 2022, a resident of Courtenay, B.C., called the RCMP to report that a suspicious man was in their yard wielding a stick, according to the IIO.

The two officers who responded to the call told the IIO that they arrived at the home shortly before 5 a.m. and found the man, who was acting strangely.

He was not aggressive with the officers, but he was covered in dirt and sticks and both Mounties reported that they believed the man was intoxicated by drugs and that he was talking "a mile a minute."

Officers arrested the man for public intoxication and intended to take him to police holding cells and release him the next day once he had sobered up, according to the IIO.

Video from inside the officers' police cruiser show that Mounties did not use force to arrest the man, and that he appeared awake in the car until officers arrived at the Comox Valley RCMP detachment, according to the IIO.

"[The man] was placed into a cell and remained there where he was conscious and continued to change positions, pace about the cell, talk, and eventually remove his clothing," wrote MacDonald in his report on the incident, which was released Thursday.

The jail was monitored by a civilian guard who was tasked with checking all of the building's prisoners four times per hour. The prisoners were also monitored on video surveillance.

"At 12:50 p.m., [the man] stumbled and fell into an upright seated position in the corner of the cell where he continued to move around," wrote MacDonald.

"[His] last movement was at 1:05 p.m. according to the video evidence."

An officer checked on the man 10 minutes later and found he was unresponsive, at which point more officers and an ambulance were called.

The officers performed CPR on the man until paramedics arrived, and he was taken to hospital, where he was declared dead the next day.


MacDonald says that police and jail guards are "not trained medical personnel" and that intoxicated prisoners should be taken to facilities such as sobering centres instead of jail cells, or that health professionals should be present at jails.

"Holding intoxicated persons in police cells, ostensibly for their own protection, guarded by persons who are not trained health professionals, is an outdated practice, and proven not to adequately guarantee their safety and health," wrote MacDonald.

"I have been involved in the investigative oversight of police for over 11 years. I have seen too many persons die in police custody through no fault of the police," he said.

MacDonald said that caring for intoxicated people should not be a responsibility of police, and should instead be considered a "health-care issue."


An autopsy found that the man had died of complications from acute alcohol withdrawal, and that liver disease contributed to his death, according to the IIO.

"[The man] was an alcoholic who was seeking help to stop drinking at the time of his death," wrote MacDonald.

MacDonald says several witnesses spoke with the IIO and said the man was trying to curb his addiction and that he was taking medication to wean off alcohol.

The IIO says the officers and guards did not act negligently in the man's death, noting that video from the police cruiser and at the RCMP detachment show that all necessary checks on the prisoners were performed, and that officers called an ambulance as soon as they discovered the man was unresponsive.

MacDonald says he believes the man's death was partly a fault of the province's jail system.

"Although officers met all legal standards, this case still raises concerns about how intoxicated prisoners are housed generally in British Columbia," he wrote.

The IIO director ended his report calling on the government to begin changing how intoxicated people are held after being arrested. Top Stories

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