Alson, 30, a Nigerian immigrant and health care worker, was nearly halfway through a 12-hour overnight shift at the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction in B.C. Just after midnight, he stepped out to check his phone on a break. He was on a grassy area next to the centre’s parking lot when an RCMP officer pulled up in a cruiser, exited the vehicle and started towards him.
“The officer told me there’s been a report of someone with a weapon,” Alson, who did not want his last name used, told Ricochet.
Thinking the officer was alerting him to potential danger, Alson turned to head back inside. That’s when he heard the instruction: “Get down.”
“I thought he meant that someone was shooting or something. That’s when I realized he was treating me as a suspect,” Alson said. “I tried to explain to him that I work right there, that I was just on a break, and that I was wearing ID. … I tried to show him the ID on my neck, but he told me to stay on the ground.”
Alson recalls the officer saying that police had a report of someone in the area with a weapon.
“I could then hear him go on his radio and ask for a description of the person reported to have a weapon. He then said I could get up, so I tried to get away from the situation, but he wouldn’t let me leave right away.”
Alson says the officer then got back in his cruiser and left, after telling him he was free to go.
The whole incident, as Alson recalls it, lasted no more than a few minutes. “I went back inside, and then after my break I had to go back to work,” he said. “I told my co-workers but I didn’t tell them much detail. I was in shock.”
The incident took place in the early hours of June 22, 2020, in the parking lot and on the hill adjacent to the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction, a 94-bed public facility serving clients living with concurrent mental health and substance use challenges. As a support worker, Alson’s job involves working with nurses on-site to deliver client services, from wellness checks to group activities.
Burnaby RCMP maintain their officer did nothing wrong and was responding to a call reporting someone with a knife near the bus stop at the intersection of Willingdon Avenue and Canada Way, which is next to the health facility and its parking lot.
“With this man being the only person in the area and near the bus stop, the officer advised the man that [he] was under arrest,” Corporal Mike Kalanj, media relations officer with Burnaby RCMP, told Ricochet by email. “The man ran away from the officer and up a grassy hill. The man then sat down and stated he worked at a nearby health facility. He was released at scene.”
“I did not run, although I did turn to go back towards my work because I thought I was being warned about potential danger, and at no point was I told I was under arrest,” Alson told Ricochet.
Support from co-workers
“My co-workers and managers have been very supportive,” Alson said. “They have asked me what actions I would like to take, and have offered to help with the filing of a complaint.”
Michael Scott is a nurse who works with Alson at the Burnaby facility.
“Alson is a humble, soft-spoken co-worker, and he was a well-respected security officer before beginning work as a support worker,” said Scott.
“This racist police action took place while [Alson was] on break from doing wellness checks on people with mental health and substance use challenges in the parking lot of his worksite — a site well known to Burnaby RCMP,” he added.
RCMP spokesperson Kalanj rejected any suggestion this was an incident of racial profiling.
At the point our officer was dispatched there was no firm suspect description...The officer was responding to a serious unfolding incident in which a man had stated he was being threatened with a knife. Within 90 seconds of initially detaining the man, the officer had clarified that he was not the suspect and released him. At no point was there any physical contact between the officer and the man.
Scott explained that he and other nurses have been discussing ways that they can support the Black Lives Matter protests that have proliferated worldwide since the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota last month. They recently met up in a park to shoot a video in solidarity with the protests.
“We wanted to do something to show our support, and then with what happened to Alson these issues hit even closer to home,” Scott explained.
Reluctant to come forward
Alson explained to Ricochet that at first he was reluctant to come forward with his story. After about 24 hours, he posted about it on his Instagram account. That prompted co-workers and family members to reach out, offering support and encouraging him to speak out more.
“He would never want something like this to happen to his clients so he feels inclined to speak out,” Scott said.
Speaking to his mother and other family members, Alson learned for the first time about some of their experiences growing up as a Black family in Vancouver. “My younger brother was handcuffed as an 11- or 12-year-old child by Vancouver police, who had profiled him as a suspect for something he of course hadn’t done.”
“They shared some of their experiences with me, and told me I should speak out,” Alson said.
“The Black Lives Matter protests influenced my decision to speak out, but even more so was learning about my younger brother’s experience. That was a big push for me.”
“A lot of people have probably experienced things like this, but don’t speak about it, it’s just become normalized.”
Police incidents across the country
In recent weeks, police across Canada have killed a number of people experiencing mental distress.
On June 20, a Peel Regional Police officer shot and killed Ejaz Choudy, a 62-year-old father of four in Mississauga, Ontario, after his family called a non-emergency line seeking help for Choudy, who was dealing with a mental health crisis. Earlier in June, in separate incidents a week apart, police in New Brunswick shot and killed two Indigenous people, Rodney Levi and Chantel Moore. On May 27, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Black-Indigenous woman, fell to her death from her family’s apartment while police were in the home.
Alongside calls from protest movements across North America to defund police departments, there is a growing discussion about police involvement in mental health and specifically their role in responding to wellness checks. Nursing student Mona Wang, who was handled roughly and dragged down the hallway of her residence in Kelowna in January in an incident captured on video, has filed a civil suit against the B.C. RCMP. She says police should be accompanied by health care workers when responding to calls relating to mental health.
Burnaby RCMP recently faced public criticism for a video circulated on social media featuring armed officers welcoming school children back to classes after the extended interruption caused by COVID-19. After the backlash, the RCMP detachment removed the video from Twitter.
As Monday’s incident in Burnaby illustrates, health workers themselves are not immune from police targeting.
“I’m a health care worker at my workplace,” Alson said. “I’m not somewhere doing something I shouldn’t be doing. This happened at the most unexpected place. It was just a shock.”
Earlier this month, in response to allegations of incidents of anti-Indigenous racism in B.C. emergency departments, health minister Adrian Dix announced an investigation and seven health authorities in the province issued a joint statement promising to “make changes to ensure the health care system in B.C. is safe and equitable for all.”
Systemic change needed
In terms of what should come next, Alson is clear. “I just want to see systematic change,” he said. “An apology won’t fix anything. We need to actually address this. I haven’t heard the RCMP saying this is a systemic issue that we need to deal with.”
Asked whether the Burnaby RCMP believes the force has issues of systemic racism that need to be addressed, Kalanj responded, “We recognize racism and other forms of discrimination exist in Canada. The BC RCMP acknowledges there is still work to be done to reduce, not just the impact but the very existence of discrimination.”
Alson worked for years as a security officer at the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction. Instead of pursuing a career as a police officer, as many security officers do, he moved into health care.
“In the past, I thought about a career as a police officer and I know many people have good intentions going into the profession. But I don’t know what to do about those with bad intentions. I don’t know what training happens for new officers. Are they speaking about race and racism?”
“Home and work are the places where I should feel safe and where I would never expect this kind of thing to happen. This was the last place I would have expected something like this to happen.”