Focus should be on mental-health supports to save police lives

If the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police wants to better protect officers in the wake of a string of cop killings across the country, focusing on bail reform is probably not the answer.

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If the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police wants to better protect officers in the wake of a string of cop killings across the country, focusing on bail reform is probably not the answer.

Only one of the eight police officers in Canada fatally shot or stabbed in the line of duty since September was allegedly killed by someone released on bail. Four of the deaths occurred when police responded to calls that involved a suspect struggling with mental illness, none of whom were out on bail.

Association president Danny Smyth, who is also Winnipeg’s police chief, sent a letter to provincial premiers this week with an urgent plea to discuss bail reform. He wants government to make it tougher for courts to grant bail for repeat, violent offenders who are charged with new offences.

Premier Heather Stefanson, whose government has taken on a “tough-on-crime” stance in recent months, agrees. She said it’s time for governments to “take action” to better protect police officers on the front lines. One of the actions cited in the letter is bail reform, the premier said.

                                <p>Winnipeg Police Service chief Danny Smyth </p>


Winnipeg Police Service chief Danny Smyth

However, there’s no evidence tightening bail provisions would have made any difference in the majority of officer deaths over the past six months. The high-profile case of Const. Grzegorz Pierzchala from the Ontario Provincial Police, who was gunned down Dec. 27, 2022 when responding to a call of a vehicle in a ditch near Hagersville, Ont., has attracted the most recent attention around bail reform. One of the suspects in the case, Randall McKenzie, was out on bail at the time of the shooting. McKenzie has a lengthy history of violent crimes and court order breaches and is subject to a lifetime firearms ban.

However, the seven other officer deaths had nothing to do with suspects released on bail.

Const. Travis Jordan and Const. Brett Ryan from the Edmonton Police Service were fatally shot March 16 during a disturbance call. The 16-year-old suspect in the case, who killed himself after the shooting, had a history of mental-health problems. He was briefly detained in November under the province’s Mental Health Act. He was not out on bail at the time of the shooting.

Sgt. Maureen Breau was fatally stabbed by a suspect in Louiseville, Que., on March 27 during an attempted arrest. The suspect, Isaac Brouillard Lessard — who was shot and killed by police — had a long history of mental disorders and was twice declared not criminally responsible for past offences. He was released from a mental-health institution last year, despite warnings he was a significant risk to public safety. He was not out on bail.

Const. Shaelyn Yang was stabbed to death in Burnaby, B.C., Oct. 18 while attempting to issue an eviction notice to a homeless man living in a tent at a local park. The suspect, Jongwon Ham, 37, a former cinematographer and editor who worked in television, was struggling with mental-health issues after he was falsely accused of sexual assault in Toronto in 2014. He has been charged with first-degree murder. He was not out on bail.

Nor was 22-year-old Chris Doncaster, who was armed with an SKS semi-automatic rifle and suspected of fatally shooting Const. Devon Northup and Const. Morgan Russell of the South Simcoe Police Service in Ontario on Oct. 11. The officers were responding to a disturbance call at an Innisfil, Ont., home. Doncaster killed himself after the shootings.

Const. Andrew Hong was gunned down Sept. 12 at a Tim Hortons in Mississauga, Ont., while he was getting coffee for his colleagues. The suspect, Sean Petrie, 40, was shot and killed by police after he allegedly went on a shooting rampage. Petrie had a long criminal history and was released from prison in 2012. He was not out on bail at the time of the police shooting.


Bail reform is always an easy target. Some changes to bail laws may be necessary. Federal Justice Minister David Lametti is expected to announce proposed changes in the coming weeks. However, they will likely be tweaks, not sweeping reforms. There are already more people in pre-trial custody in provincial jails than there are inmates serving sentences.

There are just as many questions about bail enforcement, which is a provincial responsibility, as there are about bail laws. In the Hagersville police shooting, there was a warrant issued for McKenzie, who was out on bail. Yet police made little, if any, effort to apprehend him prior to the shooting. Questions have been raised in that case about a lack of resources for enforcing bail.

What gets far less attention is how law enforcement responds to people struggling with mental illness. Four police officers and two suspects died over the past six months in cases where police responded to someone with a mental-health problem. There should be far more urgency around that than bail reform.

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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