Inquest jury focuses on link between health professionals and police

Enhanced information sharing between health and police officials in emergency situations is one of five recommendations from a coroner's inquest into the death of Jeffrey Scott Hughes.

Enhanced information sharing between health and police officials in emergency situations is one of five recommendations from a coroner’s inquest into the death of Jeffrey Scott Hughes.

Hughes, 48, was shot by RCMP on Oct. 23, 2009 after they responded to a noise complaint at his apartment building on Selby Street.

The purpose of the inquest, which took place July 25-29 in B.C. Supreme Court in Nanaimo, was to determine how, when, where and by what means Hughes died and make recommendations to prevent future loss of life in similar circumstances.

The jury issued five recommendations, the first of which is to develop a 24-hour link between health and police officials to share mental health information.

Evidence given during the five-day inquest revealed that police were initially unsuccessful in obtaining any mental health information on Hughes from staff at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital and then only the detail that Hughes was noted as violent and high risk.

The Vancouver Island Health Authority’s crisis response team in Nanaimo was unavailable at the time – the police confrontation with Hughes happened about an hour before the team came on duty – and didn’t respond until after Hughes was shot.

On Friday, Kelly Reid, director of mental health and addictions services with VIHA, testified that while health officials and the RCMP in Nanaimo have a close relationship already, both parties need to continue to strengthen that bond.

Health officials have to balance a patient’s right to confidentiality with the need to provide information during emergency situations, said Reid. The health authority has a policy and procedure that covers sharing information when there is an imminent risk to the health and safety of staff or the general public, he added.

Reid called a 24-hour link to between health and police officials a “positive step” and said that it might be just a matter of clarifying structure and protocols for information sharing, since health staff with access to information are already available around the clock.

Staff Sgt. Keith Lindner with the Victoria Police, who was in charge of the investigation into the Hughes shooting, said police access to mental health information is crucial and Victoria has an integrated mobile crisis response team that includes a police officer as well as health authority staff.

The inquest jury also recommends that: police reports of incidents should be completed in a more timely fashion to reduce inconsistencies; police should be provided with audio and visual equipment so that courts have “real evidence” of critical incidents; and having emergency response team members and negotiators on each police watch – ERT members had to be paged from home and RCMP dispatch was unable to get in touch with negotiators.

The fifth recommendation is an expression of support for Bill 12, which proposes to create an independent, civilian-led office to conduct criminal investigations into incidents that involve B.C. police officers and result in death or serious harm.

 

The coroner’s inquest last week was the public’s first chance to hear details surrounding the shooting of Jeffrey Scott Hughes.

Hughes died on Oct. 23, 2009, but testimonies from friends, neighbours and police officers on the scene revealed – despite some inconsistencies – that problems at his apartment complex started the evening before.

Noisy partying in a nearby apartment unit angered Hughes and he was punched early on the morning of his death, possibly around 4 a.m., while approaching the noisy suite.

Some time after being punched, Hughes turned his music up loud and the apartment manager called the police at about 5:30 a.m.

Police responded and were told by the apartment manager that Hughes was a schizophrenic who kept knives in the apartment.

The two responding officers, one of whom was finishing his first shift that morning, called another officer before knocking on Hughes’s door, at which time he responded with threats that led police to believe he had a weapon.

As the situation progressed and threats continued, more backup was called, including the emergency response team. An attempt to get mental health information on Hughes was initially unsuccessful.

While waiting for the emergency response team to show up, Hughes came out of his apartment with what police believed was a gun. It was later revealed to be a flare gun.

He went back into the apartment, but came out again shortly before 7 a.m., then walked down the hallway of his complex with his arms raised and the flare gun out in front of him.

Four of the officers fired on him while he was heading up the driveway of his apartment complex towards Selby Street.

Between 18 and 20 bullets were fired at Hughes and the autopsy report found that three of these bullets hit their target – in the chest, leg and heel – doing considerable damage, including passing through his abdominal aorta.

Officers did not approach Hughes for about 20 minutes because they were not sure where the gun was.

When a heavily armoured emergency response team member approached Hughes, he found the flare gun a few inches from his hand.

A paramedic was called to the scene at about 7:30 a.m., and he declared Hughes dead at about 7:35 a.m.