On a hot August afternoon in 2015, an unknown number of Vancouver police officers killed Myles Gray.
The violence they inflicted on him was so vicious and so brutal that the coroner could not pinpoint a singular cause of death—his injuries included a ruptured testicle, a fractured voice box, a broken nose, sternum and eye socket, and a dislocated jaw. Police pepper sprayed, punched, kicked, and kneed him, and struck him with a baton. These heinous acts were done while they restrained his arms and legs.
Firefighters who arrived on the scene have since said publicly that police instructed them not to check on him, even after he remained motionless.
Nearly eight years later, with a coroner’s inquest finally underway, there has been no accountability for officers involved, nor justice for Myles Gray’s family. And so many unanswered questions—ones that call into question policing, oversight, and the prosecution of police who commit lethal harm.
At least seven identified VPD officers—Constables Beau Spencer, Hardeep Sahota, Josh Wong, Kory Folkestad, Nick Thompson, Derek Cain, and Eric Birzneck—could finally face a range of disciplines “up to, and including, dismissal from the Vancouver Police Department.” All, with the exception of Birzneck, also face allegations of neglect of duty. The public witness list identifies these officers as constables, indicating that they remain sworn police officers at this time.
No oversight, but obstruction
There is no oversight or accountability for police. Officers, forces, and police associations routinely derail and divert investigations to ensure charges are never brought against officers who kill, and the identities of killer cops remain hidden. The history of so-called oversight and investigations into police violence in Canada has been consistently one of obstruction, intimidation, harassment, non-cooperation, and silencing by police toward investigative bodies. This has been the case in every province with an oversight body.
In BC, the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) has long specified problems with police not following proper procedures or providing information in a timely manner. Police obstruction has been so extensive and intractable that more than once the IIO has had to take the extraordinary step of filing a legal suit against Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer and the VPD to get basic documentation from the force. Such was the case in the VPD killing of Myles Gray, as it was in the investigation into the fatal police shooting of Daniel Peter Rintoul on November 10, 2016. In the latter case, seven officers who witnessed the killing refused to be interviewed by the IIO and the officers made the outrageous demand that they be allowed first to watch cell phone and security-camera video footage of the shooting before giving any statements.
In the ongoing criminal case regarding the police killing of Dale Culver (Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en),three Prince George RCMP officers—Sgt. Jon Eusebio Cruz and Constables Arthur Dalman and Clarence MacDonald—currently face charges for attempting to obstruct justice, as they told bystanders to delete cellphone footage that documented police use of force that led to Culver’s death. This followed a complaint filed by the BC Civil Liberties Association with the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission.
Families fight for justice while “oversight” stagnates
Myles Gray’s parents, Margie and Mark, were also forced to take police to court. Their lawsuit alleged that seven VPD officers wrongfully killed their son by beating him to death. According to the claim, the police killed Myles Gray by using “grossly excessive force” and “inflicting massive physical trauma … with no valid, lawful reason.” The suit also alleged that officers had no lawful cause or authority to detain Myles Gray and that he was repeatedly beaten, even after he had been restrained. All officers involved have been and remain on active duty since the killing, with some being promoted.
The lawsuit further alleged that “the police unlawfully impeded the investigation … by the Independent Investigations Office by failing to immediately notify the IIO of the killing.” Myles Gray’s parents allege that during the delay, “officers failed to preserve evidence” and “conferred among themselves.”
Comply or die policing
According to the lawsuit filed in BC Supreme Court, Myles Gray was “alone, unarmed, dressed in shorts and not engaged in any criminal activity during his interactions with the seven officers.” He was killed in the secluded backyard of a house in the 8300 block of Joffre Avenue. Margie Gray reports being told that her son died within minutes of the encounter with Vancouver officers.
Immediately after Myles Gray was killed, his father visited the backyard. The yard on Joffre Avenue backs into a steep ravine filled with blackberry bushes. Mark Gray believes his son was, at that point, cornered with nowhere to go. This raised familiar questions about why police did not engage him more cautiously and communicatively. Why did they quickly move to force? He could not have posed any harm to the general public or bystanders. He could not have gotten away.
As in numerous other cases in which several police encounter someone who is spatially contained with nowhere to go, and no way to harm bystanders, police quickly resort to lethal force. The mindset and practice of the police assert a framework in which the only option is “comply or die.” The purely authoritarian hallmark of policing.
Margie Gray herself calls this out: “This is ‘comply or die’ policing. Like, what was the rush to move in and kill him?” Adds Mark Gray: “You know, they could have let him calm down …. like a person’s life is worth more than a (few) minutes, right?” The family, and indeed many reasonable people, can envision a broad range of alternative non-policing approaches that would not have left a young man beaten to death.
Of course, real care, service, and protection of regular humans in need have never been the purpose or role of police in colonial state capitalist contexts (or any other context for that matter).
The brutal irony does not escape us. While police are ready to kill whenever someone does not comply with their commands, they have no interest in complying with oversight agency investigations.
It has since been revealed, through the advocacy of Margie Gray and the mother of another victim of police violence, Carol DeBoer, that several of the officers involved in the killing of Myles Gray were repeat offenders. Constables Beau Spencer, Derek Cain, Josh Wong, and Christopher Bowater had also seriously injured her son Mitchell during his arrest, breaking his jaw and a finger, his arm punctured by a police dog. Unsurprisingly, the officers were cleared of using excessive force by the IIO.
Incredibly, one of the officers, Beau Spencer has since also been charged with assault in a 2017 arrest of a man riding a bike without a helmet or lights that left the victim with serious injuries.
Perhaps most revealing in this case, given the IIO legal actions noted above, is the fact that Constables Spencer, Wong, and Cain were all present when Daniel Peter Rintoul was shot and killed. So, not only have they been involved in multiple killings, but they have also been involved in prominent legal actions over police obstruction of investigations into those killings.
Not surprisingly the Vancouver Police Union, an entirely reactionary force and not a union, responded to the IIO complaints with attempts to discredit the investigative body and undermine its (already limited) work. Tom Stamatakis, then-president of the VPU and the BC Police Association, whined publicly about IIO interviews because officers could be incriminated (as if police have any qualms about their own interview techniques which are infinitely more forceful). Stamatakis complained publicly that the IIO investigators referred to investigations as murder investigations or homicide investigations—which, of course, they are. Notably, Stamatakis has since moved on to head the Canadian Police Association and the International Council of Police Representative Associations.
This year, Justice for Myles Gray noted Stamatakis was retweeting commentary of Doug Spencer—a retired police officer and father of Constable Beau Spencer. The page noted: “Humiliation has fallen on the house of Spencer and he’s lashing out in anger.” A few weeks later, it was widely reported that four of the officers accused of misconduct for failing to take any notes after the killing claim that they did this at the direction of the Vancouver Police Union according to a report prepared under the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC). These allegations implicate Stamatakis and current president of the union, Ralph Kaisers.
In this case, nine VPD officers were reportedly the only witnesses to the killing. Police are often the only ones present when they kill, apart from the victim.
Currently, fourteen sworn police constables are set to provide evidence at the Myles Gray Inquest, and both the VPD and its members will have counsel. Cops who kill are almost never named publicly. Prolific police offenders, even those who kill, are left to roam our streets, armed and deadly.
A law unto themselves
Under BC’s Police Act, officers must “cooperate fully” with IIO investigations. Yet emails filed as part of a 185-page affidavit in the court case show that the police are trying to obstruct—even contesting the definition of the word “cooperate.”
According to the Vancouver Police Association Lawyer Kevin Woodall: “From the union perspective, cooperation is a two-way street where parties attempt to work through contentious issues in a reasoned, principled manner.” In response, IIO counsel Martin Allen replies: “Ah, Kevin, we do disagree about so much. The duty to cooperate … is obviously not some nebulous duty to ‘attempt to work through contentious issues in a reasonable, principled manner.’ It is a duty to ‘cooperate fully’ with an IIO investigator.”
This view is echoed by the BC government. According to Donna Sitter, Justice Ministry spokesperson at the time, the responsibility of police officers is clear: “Our view is that the legislation is clear and requires police officers to cooperate fully with IIO investigations.” Yet governments continue to let police openly flout their obligations, making their shared priorities clear.
Myles Gray’s family deserves answers
How is it that a young man, described as quiet and peaceful, comes to be viciously attacked by police officers using chemical weapons and is beaten so brutally that his grieving family has to have a closed-casket funeral?
Why are so many families of victims killed by police left with no answers and no insights into the events that left their loved ones dead at the hands of officers?
The short answer is that this is the nature of carceral systems—policing and the oversight agencies that are, despite claims of independence, also part of policing. It is systemic and the system protects itself.
Police openly violate existing laws, highlighting how lofty reforms cannot be expected to make substantive change. Yet, despite this, nothing has been done to hold obstructing officers, at any level, legally accountable. Every step of the way, the officers who killed Myles Gray and the organizations that exist to protect them (the VPD and the numerous police associations that advance cop interests) made every effort to obfuscate the truth of what happened on the fateful August day—a day that will forever haunt Myles’ loved ones.
A statement issued through their legal team, highlights the grief the family of Myles Gray continues to carry: “Myles was Margie and Mark’s son, and Melissa’s brother. He died in circumstances that require a public accounting, which will now begin.”
One might well ask—how could this happen in a Burnaby backyard, and how could so many state actors, across ministries, municipalities, and independent agencies, fail to provide the family with answers or preventative solutions? In asking, one may find an answer in the nature of the state and state violence itself.
Justice for Myles Gray and all victims of state-sanctioned violence.
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