British Columbia’s police watchdog has found no wrongdoing and will not recommend charges in the shooting death of Dani Cooper last November, a decision that has left the 27-year-old’s family, friends and community again calling for changes to how police respond to people in mental health crises.
Cooper died Nov. 12 after being shot twice by a North Vancouver RCMP officer, according to a report by the Independent Investigations Office (IIO), made public on Thursday.
A poet, writer and activist, Cooper was non-binary and used they/them pronouns. They were also known as Dee Cee and Maiken before they died.
The IIO’s investigation found the unnamed RCMP officer who shot Cooper twice acted lawfully and justifiably given that Cooper was advancing towards him with a knife, director Ronald MacDonald concluded.
The IIO investigates all police incidents in B.C. that result in death or serious injury, and can recommend charges to the B.C. Prosecution Service if they find police acted unlawfully.
Cooper was wielding a knife, witnesses say
The report provides the first detailed timeline of the night Cooper died since the IIO began its investigation in November.
Cooper’s mother called 911 to the co-op they shared shortly after 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 12, reporting that Cooper had tried to attack her with a knife, according to the report.
She also told the dispatcher that Cooper was experiencing psychosis and had substance use issues. Cooper’s family previously told CBC News that Cooper has schizoaffective disorder, which made them unsure of what was real, leaving them feeling scared and threatened. They had struggled to find adequate support to manage the condition and sometimes self-medicated with opioids.
While Cooper’s mother was able to wrestle the knife away, Cooper took a second four-inch knife from the kitchen while their mother went to a neighbouring unit to call 911.
Witnesses say Cooper entered and tried to enter multiple neighbours’ units holding the knife, at one time stating they were looking for their mother.
Two neighbours also called 911, reporting Cooper was trying to stab people in the complex, where units share walls but are accessible from the outside.
Rather than menacing, however, witnesses described Cooper as calm and having a blank stare. They appeared “confused or scared,” like a “deer in headlights,” said one neighbour.
Two RCMP officers arrived just 12 minutes after Cooper’s mother first called 911. Cooper had been kicking a glazed patio door trying to enter the second unit again and appeared to have stabbed themselves with the knife several times in the abdomen, according to the report.
Both officers ordered Cooper to drop the knife, but they did not appear to be processing or to understand the command, witnesses and officers told the IIO.
It was clear they were in a mental health crisis, MacDonald wrote in the report.
One officer tried to taser Cooper, but it did not work because Cooper was wearing a thick jacket, the IIO’s analysis concluded.
A third officer arrived and told Cooper they were police and were there to help, shortly after which a fourth and fifth officer arrived.
Officers recall Cooper did not believe them, and said “you’re going to kill me,” according to the report.
A neighbour witness still on the phone with 911 then heard police yelling loudly as police said Cooper climbed over the patio fence that had separated them from the officers and slowly “shuffled” towards them while holding the knife pointed up in the air.
RCMP moved away from Cooper but became “trapped” by the treeline, which they could not see beyond in the dark.
One officer told the IIO she thought Cooper was going to stab one of the officers, despite them yelling for Cooper to drop the knife.
A second taser was deployed, and 10 seconds later, an officer shot Cooper twice. They had been about 2.75 to 4 metres away from the officer, the report found.
They fell to the ground and officers removed the knife from their reach as they began life-saving efforts, according to the report.
Cooper was transported to hospital where they were pronounced dead. An autopsy determined their cause of death was the two gunshot wounds, one of which was in their chest, and that they had opioids including fentanyl and methadone in their bloodstream.
IIO director Ronald MacDonald said the investigation found RCMP officers took reasonable efforts to de-escalate the situation, protect their own safety and the safety of the public.
When tasers failed, “using lethal force was necessary to prevent the [officer[ or anyone else from being harmed,” MacDonald wrote.
The report does not say for how long the officers tried to de-escalate the situation or disarm Cooper before shooting them.
Death was preventable, says family
Thursday’s report prompted “frustration” and renewed calls for change from Cooper’s family, who say their death could have been prevented if police were better trained in de-escalation with people in mental distress.
Cooper’s sister expressed concern that they were mischaracterized as a threat and questioned why police could not disarm Cooper, who stood at 5 feet 2 inches and weighed about 110 pounds, without shooting them.
“Dani was so little of a threat that I could have just run up to them and wrapped my arms around them,” said Cara Cooper in a statement released by non-profit Pivot Legal Society on Thursday.
“They were unwell, dazed and psychosis – and instead of help they were killed by police.”
Cooper’s family continues to advocate for improved & expanded de-escalation training – so that no family must go through what they have. We continue to demand urgent changes to policing, mental health interventions, & redirecting funds towards community-based intervention. <br><br>8/8 <a href=”https://t.co/FhByA2EzWG”>pic.twitter.com/FhByA2EzWG</a>
Pivot organizers said their death raises concerns for the role of police in responding to mental health crises.
A 2018 CBC investigation found that B.C. had the highest rate of police-involved deaths per capita in the country, and the number of police shootings rapidly increased in 2022.
On average, the IIO deals with six to seven police-involved shootings every year. But in 2022, 19 people died after police used force on them in 2022.
“Cooper’s death due to RCMP gunfire is a reminder that so-called ‘wellness checks’ can lead to escalated use of force and potential fatalities,” Pivot said in the statement.
In the report, MacDonald said Cooper’s small stature did not reduce the threat they posed.
“Lethal or near-lethal wounds can be caused by any able person, no matter the size, and regardless of the protective vest being worn by an officer,” he wrote.
He stressed that because of the threat witnesses say Cooper posed, the call was not a “wellness check” but a police response to calls for help for protection from a person threatening to stab others.
The Cooper family is calling for expanded de-escalation training for police, more community-based resources for people with serious mental illnesses and more funding for non-police interventions for people in mental health distress, just as Cooper did before they died.
“Dani would not have wanted these police officers punished,” said their father, Dennis Cooper, in the statement.
“They would have wanted change.”