The parents of an international student from Nigeria say Winnipeg police failed to “protect and serve” their son who was experiencing a “mental breakdown” when officers responded to a well-being call and fatally shot the 19-year-old on New Year’s Eve.
The parents of Afolabi Stephen Opaso say the way police handled the situation with their son while he was in distress represents a “grave injustice” and signals the need for systemic changes to “prevent similar tragedies in the future.”
“The circumstances surrounding our son’s death are profoundly distressing, as he was experiencing a mental breakdown at the time of the incident,” says a statement from the Opasos sent via email on Monday.
“Mental health challenges should be met with empathy, understanding and appropriate response, yet the events that unfolded demonstrate a failure in the system designed to protect and serve.”
Opaso was rushed to hospital on Dec. 31 following the police shooting but died of his injuries.
Winnipeg police said they were called around 2:30 p.m. that day about a man who was possibly armed and behaving erratically at an apartment on University Crescent in south Winnipeg.
Officers found a man in a suite with two other people. He was holding two knives when police shot him, Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth said one day later.
The Independent Investigation Unit has taken over the investigation. The IIU investigates all serious incidents involving Manitoba police officers.
“We acknowledge that the family and community are grieving and have questions,” reads a portion of a statement sent to CBC News on Monday from a Winnipeg police spokesperson. “Like the Opaso family, we await the outcome of the IIU investigation.”
The Opasos said they’re in the grips of “indescribable” grief and that they firmly believe “lethal force in response to a mental health crisis is not only disproportionate but also constitutes a grave injustice.”
“We implore the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the actions of the officers involved, ensuring accountability for any wrongdoing,” the statement says.
“Our son’s life was cut short, and those responsible must be held accountable for their actions.”
The statement was sent on behalf of the parents to media on Monday by lawyer Jean-René Dominque Kwilu and the Red Coalition, a Montreal-based anti-racism lobby group that has spoken out in cases of alleged racial profiling.
Last week, Kwilu questioned whether shooting Opaso was necessary to disarm him.
The Opasos are calling for more training for law enforcement to help ensure officers have sufficient skills to “de-escalate situations involving individuals experiencing mental health crises.”
“We call upon authorities to re-evaluate and reform their approach to handling such delicate scenarios, prioritizing the preservation of life and the well-being of all individuals involved,” they said in the statement.
“Mental health should not be a death sentence, and our society must evolve to address these issues with compassion and humanity.”
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