WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
The night before Vancouver Const. Nicole Chan died by suicide, a police psychologist relayed urgent information about her history of suicide attempts to staff at the hospital were she was being held involuntarily, a public inquest has heard.
Dr. Randy Mackoff testified Tuesday at a coroner’s inquest, telling the jury that he received a call on Jan. 26, 2019, notifying him that Chan had been taken to Vancouver General Hospital because she was deemed a danger to herself.
Mackoff, who works almost exclusively with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), said he told the officers on the scene that they needed to speak with Chan’s care team about her past mental health problems.
“I said to Sgt. [Novi] Jette and also Supt. [Shelley] Horne that it was really important to communicate to the psychiatrist at the hospital that Const. Chan had a long history of suicidal ideation, suicide attempts,” Mackoff said.
“It was imperative for them to know this … prior to making a decision as to whether to release her or not.”
Nonetheless, Chan was released from hospital that night. She died by suicide the next morning at the age of 30.
Before Chan’s death, she had reported inappropriate sexual relationships with two superior officers, former VPD sergeants David Van Patten and Greg McCullough. She also alleged that Van Patten sexually assaulted and extorted her.
During his testimony on Tuesday, Mackoff declined to offer an opinion on the decision to discharge Chan from hospital but said it created “additional risk” given her history.
He added that in his experience from thousands of similar situations in which someone is held under the Mental Health Act, hospital staff are not generally open to speaking with what he called “collateral sources” who might provide context about the patient’s past behaviour.
“My experience as a psychologist is that there is no contact at all and no interest in engaging in conversation,” Mackoff said.
“It’s not just about diagnosis. It’s about literally not speaking. … I’ve had psychiatrists say, no, no, don’t talk to me.”
His concerns echo those recently raised by the family of Aaron Sanio, who died by suicide in 2021 after being released from care at Lions Gate Hospital. His father has said he called the hospital eight times trying to provide information about his son’s history but was never able to speak with the care team.
‘Long list’ of concerns from psychological assessment
Mackoff also spoke about reviewing Chan’s answers on a psychological assessment conducted during her original application to become a VPD officer. He said he flagged 14 concerns about her answers, including disclosure of a suicide attempt when she was a teenager.
“It was a long list,” he testified, adding that for an average recruit, he would have flagged just five or six concerns.
Mackoff testified that he would have recommended a psychological interview with Chan to determine her current state of mind, as well as interviews with family and friends. If his concerns were verified, he told the jury, he would have recommended her application to the VPD be deferred or rejected.
Earlier in the day, an officer who worked in recruiting for the VPD said she had no record of whether those additional interviews took place.
At the time of her death, Mackoff was no longer treating Chan, and he said he was “troubled” that she never disclosed her complaints alleging misconduct by senior officers.
In her final year of life, Chan’s psychologist was Dr. Noah Susswein, who also testified on Tuesday.
Susswein recalled his final appointment with Chan on Dec. 21, 2018, when she appeared to be “energetic and future-oriented” and pleased that McCullough had been suspended as a result of her complaints.
But it wasn’t all good news.
“She was very, the word she used was ‘outraged,’ that the individual she reported, Dave [Van Patten], had kept his job,” Susswein said.
‘I was sick and taken advantage of’
Chan’s feelings about Van Patten are further illuminated in a victim impact statement she prepared for the New Westminster Police Department, dated Jan. 7, 2019, which was released by the coroner’s office on Tuesday.
The New Westminster department had investigated Chan’s allegations that Van Patten sexually assaulted and extorted her, but Crown prosecutors ultimately decided not to approve charges, the inquest has heard.
Chan’s unsigned statement alleges that Van Patten, who worked in human resources, used information about her personal struggles to “exploit and manipulate” her.
“I was sick and taken advantage of by a senior officer handling my file. There was a huge imbalance of power, and I was severely depressed,” the statement says.
“Through this process, I hope that it’s clear that Dave is not someone who should have the privilege of continuing as a police officer.”
Chan also expressed despair for her future if she was unable to continue working as a police officer.
“I did not have a career before the VPD, nor do I have the training to do anything else. Most importantly, my mental health prevents me from looking forward or at other work options,” she wrote.
Van Patten was eventually dismissed from the VPD, and McCullough resigned from the force.
The coroner’s inquest is scheduled to continue Wednesday morning.
If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:
This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you’re worried about.