Vancouver Police Sgt. Corey Bech said he originally met Nicole Chan when his squad regularly visited the coffee shop she worked at while attending college.
“She asked more and more about the [policing] occupation, what are the challenges, sort of what the process is to get hired and what she needed to do to better herself to get there,” Bech testified Monday at the BC Coroners Service inquest into 30-year-old Chan’s 2019 suicide.
“We had lots of conversations over several months that led along to her thinking that's what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.”
Bech said he helped Chan get a volunteer post at a community policing centre. She got hired by Paladin Security to work in a hospital and to catch shoplifters, before successfully applying to start with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) as a jail guard in 2009.
Bech said he went from mentor to friend and Chan joined him in the ceremonial squad – the volunteer group of officers who attend retirements, funerals for fallen officers and civic events. Being a police officer was her life goal and she wanted to give back to the community, he told presiding coroner Susan Barth and the five-person jury in Burnaby coroner’s court.
Bech said he was unaware of Chan’s psychological issues until the last few years of her life. He recalled rushing to Washington state in 2016 with members of the VPD missing persons unit, when Chan went south of the border, intent on ending her life.
"I started furiously trying to find out where she was, eventually she did answer her phone and we had a conversation,” Bech said. “She was at a low point at that time, she did tell me where she was, she was in Burlington in the United States and I offered to come and get her because I had a huge fear that she was going to flee if she knew people were coming to get her.”
In 2017, Chan complained to Chief Adam Palmer about sexually exploitive relationships with senior officers Sgt. Dave Van Patten and Sgt. Greg McCullough between spring 2016 and fall 2017. She went on leave for depression and anxiety.
Bech said she became very agitated in December 2018, when it looked like neither Van Patten nor McCullough would face any consequences. He said her troubles became fodder for the rumour mill and she felt her police career was over. Bech said she didn’t want any contact with VPD officers except for him. He said there was even a rumour they were engaged in something other than a friendship or mentorship.
“Our relationship had no romantic or sexual component to it at all. Nicole was a great friend to me and that grew over years, basically, a good trust that we had in each other.”
Bech said the rumour mill is a dark part of the police culture and people are still gossiping about Chan.
“I know for a fact, she's a topic of conversation today, with myself being included in that unfortunately,” he said. “That part of our work culture is not healthy, but very difficult to control.”
On Jan. 26, 2019, Bech learned Chan had been taken to hospital and later released. He spoke with her late that night, after she had returned home. She was initially “upset and angry,” but he managed to calm her.
She blamed a breakup with her boyfriend, Jamie Gifford, but did not share other details. Gifford and the officers who attended the scene testified last week that Chan had a knife, scissors and dog leash that she planned to use to end her life.
“What she was most upset about at that time was members of our [human resources] department being at the hospital and what that signified to her is that her career was essentially over,” Bech said.
Bech offered for her to stay with his family for the night, so they could talk more. But she said she was too tired and wanted rest.
“Not unlike other conversations I'd had with her, when she'd had sort of a very emotional day and needed to rest. So I took her at her word that she was just going to go and sleep and then we're going to talk to the morning. We'd agreed to meet for coffee the next morning.”
If he had any hint she would do harm to herself, Bech said he would have taken her back to hospital. Gifford found her body the next morning, Jan. 27, 2019.
“This is one of these guilt things that eats away at you. Did I not see something or did I miss something? At the time I didn’t,” Bech said. “I knew she'd been to hospital, she’d seen somebody, I knew she had contact with our human resources section and I'd spoken to her. I thought at the time that given the fact that so many people had checked on her, that she would be okay. That was my sincere thought at the time.”
Barth asked Bech if he had any recommendation to prevent a death under similar circumstances. He suggested a mandatory mental health check for every single member of the department.
“At least somebody with some training to check in with people on an ongoing basis would be my best recommendation,” Bech said.
The inquest is expected to conclude Tuesday. The jury’s job is to find facts and make recommendations, not to find fault.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call 1-800-784-2433 (1-800-SUICIDE), or call your local crisis centre.