On the morning of Nov. 1, 2014, Marney Mutch heard the sound of glass breaking inside her James Bay home.
She knew it was her 20-year-old son Rhett, who had been texting earlier, threatening to enter the home despite a court order that only allowed him to come by with her consent. But Marney didn’t want him there.
Nervous about the confrontation, Marney called 911, then her son came into the bedroom. Still on the phone, she told him he had breached his condition and would be going to jail. The pair went into the kitchen, where Rhett stood by the sink and held a knife to his stomach. Marney told Rhett to put the knife down. Rhett started to cry.
“I just want to die. I hate this world. I hate this world,” said Rhett. “I just don’t want to be here anymore. It is a miserable world.”
According to Marney, Rhett had been saying things like this for a long time. But she never imagined that day her son would die during a confrontation with Victoria police.
As Marney stood outside, officers tried speaking with Rhett in the living room, repeatedly asking him to put the knife down. Without warning, the troubled young man charged at three officers inside the home, raising the knife in his hand.
A bean bag gun was fired to slow him down, but Rhett kept moving. Another officer fired a shot from a .45 caliber firearm, striking Rhett in the neck. The wound proved to be fatal.
An investigation conducted by the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. (IIO) recently cleared the officer of the shooting, but found significant issues and concerns regarding officer tactics, primarily relating to a basic lack of adequate communication amongst and between the officers involved.
The officer who pulled the trigger has since returned to the line of duty, but acting chief Del Manak said the incident will affect him for the rest of his career.
“He has a young family, he’s also a dad. When we were in the house…we wanted to resolve this incident as safely as we possibly could, but at the end of the day, the officers are faced with whatever situation that’s presented to them,” said Manak. “I applaud them for the efforts that they took to calm the situation down and to get him to put the knife down. At the end of the day, it was a tragic outcome.”
According to Manak, it’s not unusual for police to deal with somebody experiencing a mental health crisis multiple times throughout their shift, which is why officers undergo a significant amount of ongoing training to handle such calls.
With the help of actors, officers regularly participate in reality-based training, where they are put in a realistic scenario, such as a distraught man on a bus. The crisis intervention and de-escalation training to deal with the mentally ill has increased throughout the years both at the municipal and provincial level.
“At the end of the day, it allows our officers to know that when you are going up to somebody who is in a crisis, the first step is to try to engage with them to make them feel comfortable, to try to de-escalate the situation, establish a rapport, establish a dialogue and make sure they understand that we are there to help,” said Manak, noting police are dealing with mental health incidents more often, even though an offence isn’t being committed.
In order to better respond to such calls, this year police asked Victoria councillors to approve a $500,000-pilot project that would have a pair of officers dedicated to mental health and substance abuse calls.
The current officer in the position is embedded with teams of social workers who go out and proactively engage people with significant issues and get them the help they need. The officer, however is overwhelmed.
Despite the request council opted not to approve the pilot project — a move Manak calls unfortunate.
“Those are the officers that we would want to have a higher level of training that can help people and connect them to supports in the community. Right now we don’t have enough of that going on,” he said. “There still continues to be a disconnect between the police working hand in hand with social service providers and the health authority to get people into help.”