WARNING: This story discusses suicide and may be triggering to some readers.
Const. Nicole Chan struggled with suicide before she became an officer with the Vancouver Police Department, VPD’s consulting psychologist told a coroner’s inquest Tuesday (Jan. 24).
Randy Mackoff said he didn’t learn of those incidents until nearly five years after Chan entered the force, but that if he had known of them when she applied to VPD in the summer of 2011 he would have recommended the department wait several years to hire her or never do so at all.
Mackoff was the latest to testify on Tuesday in a coroners’ inquest into Chan’s death.
Past suicidal ideation is a serious concern for someone entering a high-stress profession with access to weapons, Mackoff told the inquest’s jury. He said the problem he sees with VPD’s recruitment process is that they only require a psychological exam for incoming members, not an actual clinical assessment.
“Psychological testing alone should not exist. It is categorically wrong.”
Mackoff said the only role a psychologist plays in the hiring process is to review the exam applicants take and offer feedback to the recruitment team. This is contrary to what many other large-scale departments do in Canada and what experts recommend, Mackoff said.
In 2011, Mackoff did not interview Chan during her hiring process, but did review her psychological exam. He identified 14 “prominent” concerns for recruiters to look into before hiring her, including past possible suicidal thoughts. In a typical report he said he might identify five or six concerns.
“Fourteen seems like a long list and it is a long list.”
The inquiry has not yet heard what recruiters did or did not do with Mackoff’s recommendations.
The first time the psychologist met Chan in person was in May 2016, after she was referred to him for expressing anxiety to a superior officer. It was then, Mackoff said, that Chan told him she had twice taken action to end her life before entering VPD, and done so once again since being hired.
Concern for Chan’s life was raised on at least three other occasions, Mackoff recalled: Once in June 2016 when Chan travelled to Washington State and had to be brought back by VPD officers after expressing suicidal thoughts; once in September 2017 when she told a sergeant she didn’t want to get up the next day; and on the night before her death in January 2019 when she was apprehended under the Mental Health Act.
In that period, Chan also started seeing her own psychologist, Noah Susswein.
Susswein walked through two years of appointments with Chan, from January 2017 to 2019, during his separate testimony Tuesday. Over their sessions, he said he came to learn that Chan carried a lot of trauma from her childhood.
She described herself as relying heavily on other people’s approval for her own self-worth, Susswein told the inquest, adding that she had a history of confusing sexual and emotional intimacy and sometimes initiated the former when she was actually after the latter.
During their time together, Chan’s treatment goals shifted dramatically from wanting to get back to work after being put on leave to realizing she may not have a future at the VPD. This, Susswein recalled, was largely because of a complaint Chan had filed against a senior officer in human resources who she said was extorting her for sex.
Witnesses earlier in the inquest identified this person as Sgt. David Van Patten.
The New Westminster Police Department completed a criminal investigation into Van Patten and recommended numerous charges against him, but Crown Council declined to proceed with them. An internal disciplinary investigation into Van Patten was still ongoing when Chan died by suicide on Jan. 27, 2019.
Susswein recalled that process being extremely difficult for Chan. He said most of her support system prior to her filing the complaint against Van Patten had come from fellow officers. After filing it, Susswein said Chan told him she had regular intrusive thoughts about what coworkers were saying or thinking about her.
In the final months leading up to her death, Susswein said Chan started to refer to being a police officer in the past tense. He described this as a significant wound to her identity.
“I think it interfered with her achievement and pride needs.”
In their last session on Dec. 21, 2018, Susswein said Chan told him she was outraged that “Dave” still had kept his job throughout the complaint process and that she would consider going back to VPD if he wasn’t there.
On the night Chan was apprehended under the Mental Health Act and taken to the Vancouver General Hospital, two VPD officers tried to get in touch with Susswein for advice on what to do. He couldn’t be reached – and testified Tuesday he had previously made it clear he wasn’t an on-call service – so the officers phoned Mackoff instead.
Mackoff said Tuesday that he told the officers to ensure that hospital staff knew about Chan’s long suicidal history before they decided to release her. Mackoff did not speak to the hospital staff personally. He had the two officers get a “non-suicide agreement” from Chan, in which she verbally confirmed that she would not harm herself. The officers also had Chan call a friend of hers – a colleague from VPD.
“In my view, that’s pretty exhaustive. When you walk away from that situation your fingers are crossed, your prayers are there and most of the time people live,” Mackoff said.
That wasn’t the case with Chan, though, who was found dead the next morning.
The coroners’ inquest is set to continue until Jan. 30. Inquests are not intended to place blame and do not bare legal or criminal ramifications, but are used to determine if any systemic changes can be made to prevent further deaths of similar circumstances.
A civil lawsuit against Van Patten, as well as other officers, the Vancouver Police Department, the Vancouver Police Union, the City of Vancouver, and multiple government figures, is ongoing.
None of the allegations presented in the inquest or detailed in the civil suit have been proven in court. A WorkSafeBC investigation concluded in 2018 did provide Chan compensation for a mental disorder resulting from her employment and, specifically, “multiple sexual assaults.”
If you feel like you are in crisis or are considering suicide, please call the Crisis Centre BC suicide hotline at 1-800-784-2433.
Other resources include: Canada Suicide Prevention Service at Toll free: 1-833-456-4566. You can also text 45645 or visit the online chat service at crisisservicescanada.ca.
Some warning signs include suicidal thoughts, anger, recklessness, mood changes, anxiety, lack of purpose, helplessness and substance use.