The family of a man who died after being shot with a beanbag gun by Vancouver police on the city’s Downtown Eastside in August says they won’t give up their quest for answers as they push for systemic change in policing across the country.
Chris Amyotte, a 42-year-old Ojibwa man and father from the Rolling River First Nation in Manitoba, died on Aug. 22 in what police initially described as an “interaction” with a man behaving “erratically.” Investigators later confirmed officers deployed a beanbag gun after a “confrontation.”
“Our family is beyond anger right now. Anger is an emotion that quickly came and left just like Chris,” Amyotte’s cousin Samantha Wilson told media Thursday.
“We now want reasoning, we want understanding, we want answers. We have so many questions.”
The day of the incident, witnesses told Global News Amyotte had been bear sprayed, and had stripped his clothes off and was pouring milk on himself.
Witnesses also said a large group of people at the scene tried to tell officers he was acting the way he was because he had been bear sprayed.
Vancouver police have described beanbag guns as “safe and effective” and “an alternative to lethal force.”
The death is being investigated by B.C.’s civilian police watchdog the Independent Investigations Office (IIO), and police have said they cannot provide specific details about the incident.
However, in a statement earlier this week, spokesperson Const. Tania Visintin said he had been involved in a “violent incident,” that he’d been reportedly walking around seeking help though no one offered any, and that he’d been acting erratically and “making people feel unsafe.”
Wilson disputed that characterization Thursday, as she called for police and the IIO to “hold the officers involved accountable.”
“I’ve come across numerous people who told me they tried to help Chris, that when help did arrive, they were telling the help that arrived that he needed help, that they were supposed to help him,” Wilson said.
“You’re supposed to protect people, you’re supposed to help people, and instead six shots were fired, and my cousin’s life ended that day.”
In an interview Thursday, IIO Chief Civilian Director Ron MacDonald pleaded with the family to be patient and said the investigation would take time.
He said an autopsy has been completed, but that a cause of death has not been determined and that toxicology results have not been processed.
MacDonald said questions about whether and how bear spray was involved and the decisions that went into the use of a beanbag gun form “integral” parts of the investigation.
“We’re still working to identify all of the witnesses we can who are able to help us with (the bear spray) aspect, because it might help demonstrate what was going on with this individual prior to police arrival, in addition to the impact someone else may have had on him,” he said.
“In this case, there is evidence and clearly witnesses have come forward in the public and talked about this individual being shot by a beanbag gun,” he added.
“We need to determine number one, what role if any did that action play in this individual’s death, and also — whether it did or didn’t play a role in his death — whether that action was justified.”
MacDonald disputed allegations the IIO had not been in contact with Amyotte’s family, and said there had been “significant” communication with family members.
Under British Columbia law, a coroners’ inquest must also be eventually called, because the death occurred while Amyotte was “in the care or control” of a peace officer.
Wilson told reporters Thursday she believed Amyotte died in part because he was in distress in the Downtown Eastside, and was viewed as “just another vulnerable person” in a part of the city where no one would care what happened to him. She called for systemic change in how police treat residents of the neighbourhood, particularly those who are Indigenous.
She said she has also been connecting with the families of other people who have died in similar circumstances across the country, and intends to push for change nationally.
“Christopher has a family that loves him very much and we are exploring every possible avenue to seek answers for him and his children,” she said.
With files from Darrian Matassa-Fung
© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.