Judge calls for better treatment of people in custody

A judge says Alberta Health Services and the RCMP should do a better job of protecting people in custody with mental health problems.

EDMONTON — A judge says Alberta Health Services and the RCMP should do a better job of protecting people in custody with mental health problems.

The finding is in a fatality report into the December 2007 death of Sylvie Latimer, who hanged herself in a cell at a detachment in Airdrie.

Latimer was bipolar, abused drugs and alcohol and had a history of suicide attempts. She was arrested two days after being released from the Calgary Remand Centre.

Judge Anne Brown says the Airdrie cells didn’t have surveillance cameras, a guard failed to check on Latimer and her medical problems weren’t noted in the police computer.

“There are often — and were in the case of Sylvie Latimer — several arms of the state implicated in detention of a prisoner,” Brown wrote in her report released Tuesday. “When this is the case, it becomes a collective state responsibility to ensure the safety of the detained person.”

The judge pointed to the use of informally and inconsistently trained commissionaires as guards and recommended a formal training program.

She also recommended that a confidential mental health databank for police be created and added that the province should close cells that aren’t equipped with cameras.

The report says the RCMP noted serious deficiencies at the Airdrie police cells more than two years before Latimer died, but no upgrades were made until after her death.

Brown said the failure of officers to note Latimer’s suicide attempt history and the guard’s failure to check on her were both breaches of RCMP policy.

The judge wrote that the health risks when prisoners such as Latimer are first incarcerated are well known to Alberta and federal agencies that deal with inmates.

Doris Stapleton, an RCMP spokeswoman, said the Mounties have responded to all of Brown’s recommendations that pertain to police.

She said the training of guards has been improved.

“Part of the cell guard training is that they monitor prisoners and do a visual check and report randomly, but no longer than 15 minutes between checks,” she said.

Police cells that aren’t equipped with surveillance cameras have been closed or are no longer used, she said.

Mounties must also note and enter any history of suicidal tendencies or suicidal behaviour of a detained person into the Canadian Police Information Centre computer database.

Dr. Michael Trew, a mental health and addictions expert with Alberta Health Services, said it may be difficult to implement some of the report’s recommendations.

Trew said creating a confidential mental health database for police and providing them with a mental patient’s treatment plan may contravene Alberta privacy laws.

“We have limitations to how we can use that information and who we can share it with.”

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