The Special Investigations Unit have opened an investigation into a police shooting of Noah, a 19-year old Black youth from Kitchener. As a provincial agency, the SIU’s mandate covers all incidents involving police where there is death or serious injury. In this case, Waterloo Regional Police Services (WRPS) responded to a call of a man in duress on Aug. 18th in a Kitchener plaza. Footage of the incident shared to social media show an officer with his gun drawn, and at least nine shots can be heard on the video. Noah was sent to hospital in critical condition.

Noah survived his gunshot wounds and was charged with assault with a weapon and attempting to disarm a peace officer. He was later released on bail. The mother of a friend of Noah’s set up a Gofundme page to help cover medical costs, legal fees and mental health treatments. 

Noah was not just a classmate or a teammate or even my best friend, he was a brother to me whom I kept really close to my heart, and I believe explaining him as a person wouldn’t be able to fit on a piece of paper. As big as he is he was truly soft, no matter how many countless hours he spent working out trying to make his body strong he was lost and almost little inside. Noah and my unique relationship always consisted of competing against one another to see who was better, to tell you the truth I was the more skilled athlete but Noah would never admit that over our 7 years of knowing each other and he would always be the first one to challenge me the second he saw me. I spent a lot of time with Noah, every week we would go to McLennen park to play basketball for hours and hours and push each other to be better, we would also go to church where I can say that’s where his identity was, where he felt purpose, where he felt life.

– Elijah, friend of Noah’s*

insideWaterloo obtained letters from friends of Noah’s who wanted to tell the community who their friend was outside of a police report. They describe him as a friendly and outgoing person who goes out of his way to make people feel welcomed. He was a good Christian and a great basketball player. They also recognize mental health struggles he’s been shouldering for years.

The police shooting sent shock waves through the entire community. Reallocate Waterloo Region, the African, Caribbean and Black Network and Black Lives Matter Waterloo Region have put out statements in support of Noah, questioning WRPS as the only approach to these kinds of situations. They all call for Waterloo Regional Council to support alternative responses to mental health calls.

Judah Oudshoorn, a member of Reallocate WR, wrote in an email that this most recent instance of police violence points to a driving tenet of their groups’ advocacy. “This is fundamentally about shifting resources from something that doesn’t work and is often harmful … into reactive measures where a person is adequately trained in the area of supporting someone through a mental health crisis and further investing in communities so that we don’t have these sorts of situations arising in the first place,” he wrote.

Laura Mae Lindo, MPP for Kitchener Centre, has been inundated with emails regarding the incident. “Community members are acutely aware that there were no mental health supports available for Noah,” she said. “And in the emails that I’m receiving, I’m being told that in their own families, they’ve had the same struggle.”

He is hurting real bad and as he is a part of my family i will not sit back and let him do this to himself he has so much to live for but he does not see that and as i see him as my brother i will fight for him to get better and to live the life that is waiting for him he has so many years left so he needs help to spare those years .anyone who met noah would love him he is not this big aggressive man he is crying for help and i ask one thing and that’s please help my brother help him to live and keep on pushing because he has it in him he just needs help to get him going he has always been there for me when i needed someone so it’s my turn to do the same

– Olivia, friend of Noah’s

Lindo argued that while our current system’s approach to distress calls needs to change, the focus should be on addressing the root of the problem that leads to people being in crisis. Discussions about whether the police officers did the right thing misses the larger issue of why they were needed in the first place.

“I think that we need to actually focus our attention on the amount of times that this poor child likely called out for help and received nothing. Not because the family didn’t want to provide it. Not because the community didn’t want to provide it. But because the government that holds the funding to support mental health in our young people has decided that it’s not important to fund those resources,” she said.  

Mental health has been a major talking point at Queen’s Park in recent years, but the funding is still lacking. For young people in Waterloo Region, wait times for mental health services can take up to one year unless you’re able to pay out of pocket for private healthcare. 

According to MPP Lindo, there were only three to four child adolescent psychiatrists working out of Grand River Hospital. In Waterloo Region, Lindo said that there are over 3,500 people who have navigated crises and are awaiting ongoing care and treatment. insideWaterloo has reached out to the hospital to confirm those numbers.

Recent research shows that depression and anxiety have skyrocketed among youth as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year the national children’s charity Children First Canada declared a #codePINK, a term commonly used in healthcare settings to flag a paediatric emergency.

Hospitals in Canada reported that suicide attempt admissions among youth increased by 100 per cent, admissions for substance-use disorders increased by 200 per cent compared to last year, and 70 per cent of children and youth indicated that the pandemic has affected their mental health.

Earlier this year, the Ontario Nurses Association issued a statement condemning the provincial government for legislation freezing wages for healthcare workers, a trend that has persisted over the last three years. Lindo said that all of these issues create a climate that make it very difficult for youth like Noah to access mental health support.

I was heartbroken when I heard the news and I thought to myself there’s no way Noah would never have done this. But then I thought you never really know what people are going through and I think this was Noah’s cry for help. I personally have had mental health issues and I felt too that there was nothing left for me I cried for help. I finally received it and I’m doing amazing. Sometimes an act like this is a cry for help and I truly believe it was. I believe people deserve second chances and if they revive they help they need they too can find themselves just like I did. 

Noah P. friend of Noah’s

The state’s monopoly on violence and aftermath

While healthcare continues to be underfunded and the pandemic compounds mental health issues among youth, Lindo said that she understands why some first responders have received additional funding for mental health supports.

“It’s because their jobs are difficult, they carry a heavy load,” Lindo said, noting that police and first responders “see people at crisis points and have to intervene during difficult situations … But their calls would not be as horrid as they are if we made sure that community had what they needed to not be in crisis.”

Gary Conn, the president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police has argued that the police should not be responding to mental health calls.  Oudshoorn wrote that the current system, which sees all mental health calls flow through or involve the police, is a backwards approach.

“It should be the other way around: the mental health professional should assess the situation. They are the experts [who] then decide whether police are even necessary,” Oudshoorn wrote. “Police tell us they are not experts, so why are they determining the level of so-called risk or danger?” 

The Waterloo Regional Police Services Board approved a $5-million increase to the police budget, bringing the total WRPS budget for 2021 to $185,387,096. Oudshoorn argued that funding that goes to police would be better spent on strengthening the mental health sector. 

Reporting for the Waterloo Region Record, Jeff Outhit found that Black people in Waterloo Region are nearly six times overrepresented when police force is used or threatened. 

“When police respond to mental health calls, there is increased risk of use of force, especially so if the person is Black, Indigenous, or racialized,” Oudshoorn argued. “Our community has defined safety around policing, but that is a very narrow conception of safety.”

Lindo pointed out that the recent focus on rising gun violence in Waterloo Region excludes gun violence by the state.

“I don’t know how we can have a conversation about what’s happening in various neighbourhoods about the rise of gun violence and not recognize that more money went into policing across the province so that they could buy more military armaments,” Lindo said.

I met Noah, about 2 months after landing in Canada. We were both in the same class. We were somewhere about ten to 11 years old. Noah was always an energetic, charismatic, sweet kid. He helped me navigate around places I had never been to. Helped me fit in places I was too nervous to join. All this while having a language barrier. A couple of years later, we were going to each other’s houses, going to birthday parties, and so forth. However, Noah’s story is being tarnished for one mistake that could’ve been avoided if he had gotten the right help. And that is what we should be focusing on: giving him the help he deserves and not locking him up behind bars where the same fate might occur again. Noah is not a criminal, far from it in fact. He is a person who’s hurting and needs help.

– Muktar, friend of Noah’s

*Letters obtained by insideWaterloo were published as written

*With files from Phi Doan