12/29/2014 03:43 EST | Updated 02/28/2015 05:59 EST

B.C. Transit Police Shooting Raises Questions About Mental Health, Gun Policy

SURREY, B.C. - The death of a distraught man in a grocery store in Surrey, B.C., is prompting renewed scrutiny of police training and the jurisdiction's unusual policy of allowing transit officers to carry guns.

Transit police responded Sunday to a call about a disturbance in a Safeway store in the north Surrey community of Whalley. The officers fired their guns at a man who later died of his injuries.

B.C.'s police watchdog, the Independent Investigations Office, is investigating the shooting and is releasing few details. But on Monday, Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said she wants to target the root causes of crime, including mental health and addiction.

"We can see even some of the recent examples (have) elements of mental health attached to them," she told reporters at a news conference.

Hepner called for a new mental health facility in either a hospital or stand-alone building. She also said she has increased Car 67 teams, which respond to mental health incidents and are made up of an RCMP officer and a psychiatric nurse.

The newly-elected Surrey mayor was responding to a recent spate of crime in the city, including the murders of two teenagers in separate attacks.

Metro Vancouver's transit police became the first of its kind in Canada to carry guns in 2005. The policy director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said the time is right to review that policy.

"We would like to know how often those arms are used, in what circumstances, the appropriateness of the uses that they've been put to date," said Micheal Vonn.

She said her organization saw no proof that transit officers needed firearms when they were first introduced.

"If they would like to continue to have that array of weapons, then we should look at the evidence and figure out if that is appropriate."

Transit police have the authority to conduct investigations, enforce outstanding warrants and make arrests outside transit property. They receive the same amount of training as all other B.C. officers, including in firearms handling and mental health.

Spokeswoman Anne Drennan said it's "completely appropriate" for transit police to carry guns.

"We deal with the exact same kinds of situations that municipal officers do, and in some cases more situations that are extremely volatile," she said.

Drennan said transit officers received a call at about 8 a.m. Sunday that a man had gone behind the counter of a convenience store just 300 metres from Surrey Central SkyTrain station and demanded a knife.

Officers then responded to the disturbance inside the nearby Safeway after hearing about it on RCMP radio. She said she could not comment on what occurred inside the store due to the IIO's investigation.

The IIO responded to one other shooting incident involving a transit police officer earlier this year. But the office did not investigate because no one was hit, said spokeswoman Kellie Kilpatrick.

In a separate incident in July that is still under investigation, a man died in custody of the transit police after he had been behaving "erratically."

B.C. Attorney General Suzanne Anton was unavailable Monday for an interview. A spokesman with the Ministry of Justice said that in response to growing concerns about police interacting with people in crisis, the province has made training in this area a "priority."

In 2012 the province launched a new mental health training program for all officers in B.C. that consists of a four-hour online course and seven hours of classroom instruction. Officers are trained to identify mental health disorders, build a rapport and use calming techniques.

A Mental Health Commission of Canada report published in June 2014 said B.C.'s training model "appears to be a successful learning program."

But critics still question whether mental health has been made a priority among B.C. police officers. A man wielding a plank of wood in South Vancouver was fatally shot by Vancouver police in November.

Vonn said the issue may not be a lack of training, but a lack of on-the-job experience for de-escalation or decreasing the intensity of a situation.

"That's a mentorship issue. That's making sure you have inexperienced and experienced officers paired together," she said. "But that would take a more thorough assessment than we can make from this distance.

"What's fair to say is that we along with the general public understand there to be concerns verging on crisis, in so far as police handling of mental health incidents are concerned." (CKNW)