Man dies after release from police custody

Denise Titian and Eric Plummer, July 22, 2020

An independent agency is investigating the RCMP's role in the death of James Williams on July 16. The father of five is pictured here in an earlier photo. (Submitted photo)

Duncan, BC — 

A Nuu-chah-nulth man has died in a Duncan homeless shelter after being released from police cells.

James Williams, 52, of Tla-o-qui-aht and a father of five, was found dead in his unit at Warmland House on the afternoon of Thursday, July 16.

For family members there are many questions surrounding the sudden death, which occurred 14 hours after he was released from police custody for public intoxication.

According to police, Williams was picked up off a Duncan street about 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 15 for being drunk in public. He was released from cells at about 1:30 a.m. on Thursday morning after spending nine hours in jail. Fourteen hours later he would be found dead in his shelter unit.

Kevin Touchie, Williams’ older brother, says he doesn’t know what happened for sure, only what he’s heard from family and read on social media. He was on his way from Nanaimo to Duncan to be with other family members to gather more information and to plan services for his younger brother.

“There were five of us in the family and he was the youngest; there are only two of us left,” he told Ha-Shilth-Sa.

Kevin said that his father Dave Williams was from Tla-o-qui-aht and his mother Linda came from the Touchie family in Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ. Both parents have passed on.

Public intoxication isn’t an offence under Canada’s Criminal Code, but often police will take someone into custody if it’s determined that they are a danger to themselves, said Corp. Chris Manseau of RCMP media relations.

“For the most part it’s so that someone can care for that person if we feel that they’re unable to care for themselves,” he said. “Maybe they’re going to walk into traffic or make a bad decision. They could choke on their vomit or what have you.”

There isn’t a set amount of time someone would be kept in a cell, but police make a judgment call based on how the incarcerated person is responding, added Manseau.

“We are not health care professionals, so it would be difficult for us to make a health care determination, but through conversations with the person if [police] feel that they are able to care for themselves - if the person agrees to that - then absolutely we will let them go,” he explained. “If the person says that they are in any type of medical distress, if they are lacking any medication, have an underlying issue that we weren’t aware of or couldn’t have known prior to their incarceration, then we’ll make sure that medical professionals are contacted.”

Cousin Jennifer Touchie noted that James had a tough life, but always tried to make the best of it. He had underlying health issues, including pancreatitis.

“We are waiting for toxicology report, and I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this but there was a head injury and that is all we know,” said Jennifer.

Jennifer confirmed that James lived in the shelter unit he was found deceased in. Even so, he was human and deserved so much more.

“He has children and grandchildren and he was so in love them; he had a sparkle in his eye when he talked about them,” said Jennifer.

Extended family in Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ are demanding answers.

“We need to question the coroner,” said Jennifer. “We want to be a voice for James. We want to advocate for him. He deserved better. He didn’t deserve to die this horrible death.”

The BC Coroners service is investigating the cause of Williams’ death, and the matter has been referred to B.C. Independent Investigations Office, a civilian oversight agency of police-related incidents that result in serious harm or death. The IIO can file a report to Crown counsel to consider charges. If a report is not referred to the Crown, the IIO produces a public document explaining their findings.

Jennifer asked why these types of incidents keep happening with police.

“If you go on the IIOBC (Independent Investigation Office of BC) webpage, there are a lot cases on a daily basis,” she said. “There are a lot of open cases investigating police where people were injured or died after police intervention.”

She vowed that the Touchie family would fight for justice for James Williams.

“Our lives are important, why are we always targeted, swept under the rug? What did we ever do to be treated this way? We are human and we are going to be his voice,” said Jennifer.

The family has asked NTC Vice-President Mariah Charleson to be their spokesperson during the investigation. Both Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ First Nation and the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation are working together along with the NTC.

“We will get to the bottom of what happened and we’re going to make some noise; we all want answers,” said Touchie.