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'A wake-up call': Five Canadian police officers killed in 37 days

A former police chief says the deaths should be a tipping point. He's calling for changes to better support people and their mental health.

Four on-duty Canadian police officers and one off-duty officer have been killed in just 37 days, leaving families and communities reeling with grief across the country.

Const. Shaelyn Yang was stabbed to death in Burnaby on Tuesday after responding to a park where a person experiencing homelessness was living. 

Yang, 31, was a resident of Richmond and had been an RCMP member for just shy of three years.

"She was a loving wife, a sister, and a daughter,” says Deputy Commissioner Dwayne McDonald, BC RCMP Commanding Officer.

"Const. Yang was a kind and compassionate person, which makes her death even more difficult to accept. Her loss is immeasurable.”

Robert Gordon, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, says officers being killed on duty is rare and not something we should expect to see continue. 

“This is unusual, fortunately; we don’t see this kind of activity, these tragedies that often,” says Gordon. “I don’t see that this is a national trend of any kind."

He added the killings will ultimately impact how police officers conduct themselves and do their job. 

“Police officers now have to be doubly careful about how they proceed into potentially volatile situations,” he says. “Especially where there’s any suggestion that, or possibility, that the person is impaired in some way either because of a mental illness or an ingestion of drugs or excessive amounts of alcohol.”

The recent killings of officers also highlight the “inaction” of dealing with homelessness, according to Gordon. 

“They're people in extreme need, and we're not addressing those needs properly and we've allowed — 'we' being the community — these sub-communities to develop and to become established,” he says. “The minute you don't move on those situations and allow them to grow, with the best of intentions, you are building a problem."

Former B.C. solicitor general and West Vancouver police chief Kash Heed says every officer should be able to return home to their loved ones after their shift, without being harmed.

“Most telling, is the mental health issue and the fact that we've been talking so much about this, but very little action on dealing with it,” Heed told Glacier Media.

"We've got people with severe emotional health issues that are not being dealt with in a comprehensive nature. And as a result, they're out there in society roaming our streets, and look at the unfortunate incident that happened to that young police officer yesterday in Burnaby."

The newly elected Richmond city councillor says the current system is at a tipping point, but questions if it will be enough to create real change. 

“The death of a police officer so tragically, which, in my humble opinion, most likely could have been prevented, should be a wake-up call. Do I think it's going to resonate in their minds? No,” he says. 

Heed is calling for more support for people struggling with mental health. 

“Immediately, what [we] need to do is make sure that we have a facility that we can take these people to on a temporary basis. If we have to open up a temporary facility while we are building a more modern contemporary facility to treat people with mental health problems, let's do that,” says Heed. 

Building more spaces to house the homeless or simply hiring more staff won’t address the deeper issue, he adds. 

“We can hire 200 or 300 more police officers, 200 or 300 more health workers — it will not make a difference unless we put those other supports in place.” 

Police officers across Canada mourned the death of Toronto Police Const. Andrew Hong, who was fatally shot while at a Mississauga Tim Hortons on Sept. 12.

“While on lunch break he was shot in an unprovoked, and may I say, an ambush attack,” said Chief Nishan Duraiappah during a press conference. 

Days later, on Sept. 14, York Regional Police Const. Travis Gillespie died in Markham, Ont. while driving to work. He was off duty. 

On Oct. 11, two officers responded to a disturbance at a house in Innisfil, Ont. Const. Devon Northrup and Const. Morgan Russell from South Simcoe Police Service were both shot, and neither drew their gun. Both police officers died in the hospital. 

Back in B.C., condolences are pouring in for Yang and flowers are being placed at the crime scene. 

At the time, Yang was working on the mental health and homeless outreach team when she was killed. 

“Working with mental health and homelessness can be challenging, but Shaelyn embraced that job with passion. She found value working with this team and working with those struggling in our community,” says Chief Supt. Graham de la Gorgendiere, Burnaby RCMP Detachment Commander.

Heed is calling on the B.C. government to make changes. 

"We need these politicians to stand up and deal with this,” says Heed. "The tragic loss of another police officer, one is far too many. But this is a real tragedy. And if this isn't the tipping point, I'm not sure what's going to be.” 

The Independent Investigations Office is currently looking into Yang's death. On Wednesday, a 37-old-man was charged with first-degree murder in connection to her death.