Observations from the Coroner's Court
Today marked the beginning of the coroner's inquest into the death of Michael Vann Hubbard where Pivot lawyer Douglas King is representing the family. Each day Niki Schnurr, one of Pivot's mental health and policing interns, will be blogging about the evidence of the day and her thoughts.
So today was my first coroner’s inquest, an investigation into the death of Michael Vann Hubbard who was shot by a VPD officer on March 20, 2009. Today’s witnesses were the officer who shot Michael, her partner, other officers who arrived on the scene, and eye witnesses. The day concluded with a closed circuit video of the incident.
First of all the facts: From all of the evidence it looks like negativity aligned and a man with mental health issues was at the wrong place at the wrong time, making a serious mistake which ended up costing him his life. The police received a call on the radio that a car had been broken into and 2 suspects had a black knapsack and were walking away from the scene. The two officers involved heard the radio and decided to drive by Belkin House (a social housing and shelter space with a floor where parolees live) in order to look for suspects. The closed circuit video showed Hubbard having just left the door of Belkin House, stopping to find something in his knapsack when the police approached him. From testimony, the police felt they had reasonable grounds to search Hubbard’s knapsack because it was somewhat close to the scene of the crime, he was rummaging through his black knapsack, and he could have had time to walk from the scene of the crime to where the officers stopped him. After being asked by the officers to show them his bag Hubbard drew out an exacto knife and held it in front of him. They backed off and drew their firearms. Within the span of a minute or two Hubbard advanced on the officers, in a stilted manner with his legs super straight in the shape of the letter A.
The officer who shot Mr. Hubbard (Officer Wicks) testified that she had been in fear for her life as training taught her that a person can advance quickly in that situation. Wicks shot Mr. Hubbard and he crumpled to the ground instantly and lied there, on the sidewalk, while a group of officers “dealt with the situation”. One officer was standing, bent over Mr. Hubbard and repositioned him. Once this officer saw his breathing had stopped she started administering chest compressions. While watching the video, it felt like time stood still and the slight, elderly man was motionless on the concrete with no one attending his gunshot wound. That’s when my hand went to my mouth in disbelief and horror in the court-like inquest room and I truly realized how sad it was that this man lost his life that day.
Overall, it is unfortunate that it took three years for this inquest to finally happen. Minutes before her testimony today, officer Wicks was smiling and did not seem too nervous or concerned about what was ahead of her. This may have something to do with the fact that she has never been publicly questioned, avoiding criminal charges and discipline. I can’t really say why but it was a bit off-putting. Her partner seemed more solemn before and during testimony than she who had actually pulled the trigger. On the witness stand officer Wicks said she had a lot of experience dealing with people with mental illness and Hubbard “didn’t display any signs of mental illness in his actions or behavior.” I’m just a student but from seeing the video and hearing witnesses describe his behavior, I’d bet on the fact that he had a serious mental illness. She then went on to say that she wouldn’t have treated Mr. Hubbard any differently if he did have a mental illness because the threat was imminent and she couldn’t have responded any differently. This struck a chord with me. I get that she felt scared, her adrenaline was pumping and she didn’t have a lot of options – but in hindsight to say she wouldn’t have responded differently even if she believed he had a mental illness is shocking.
Through a research position I’ve been lucky enough to meet and get an inside perspective of at least a few hundred of the people who live in the downtown eastside. Every single one of them has a family. Every single one of them is a human being. I think the testimony from Day 1 shows we still have a lot left to understand about mental illness, and I don’t think Michael Hubbard should have died in the police incident that occurred on March 20, 2009.