Published:August 29, 2021
The parents of an 18-year-old MacEwan University student who died of a drug overdose say they will continue to push for answers in their son’s death after their complaint against police was dismissed by the province’s Law Enforcement Review Board.
Calum Whytock died April 28, 2017, after ingesting “lean,” a cough-syrup based beverage consumed recreationally.
Medical examiners concluded Calum died of a toxic dose of carfentanil. His parents, Mioara and Steven Whytock, use the term “poisoning” and insist his death should have been investigated as a homicide to determine who supplied the deadly drug.
“Carfentanil is not meant for any form of human consumption,” Steven Whytock said in an interview. “It’s used by vets for large animals … They might as well have stuck arsenic (in his drink). Had they done that, there would have been a proper investigation, I would assume.”
The Whytocks filed a complaint against the Edmonton Police Service in Feb. 2018. They made eight allegations against six officers, who they argue committed misconduct under the provincial Police Act.
While it remains relatively rare, Edmonton police have laid homicide charges in a handfulof overdose deaths. The practice is controversial: parents like the Whytocks say there should be criminal liability for people who supply deadly drugs, while others, including the U.S.-based Drug Policy Alliance, say drug-induced homicide prosecutions are “counterproductive and inhumane.”
Calum Whytock was a first-year social studies student at MacEwan who aspired to go into politics. He was the Whytocks’ only child and had just moved out on his own.
The family’s issues with police began in January 2017, when officers attended their home after an argument between Calum and his father. The Whytocks say officers should have apprehended Calum under the Mental Health Act, which would have allowed him to receive treatment. The officers insisted they had no grounds to detain Calum. One suggested they give Calum “tough love and allow him to hit rock bottom.”
The Whytocks claim officers also acted negligently on the day of Calum’s death. Mioara Whytock arrived at Calum’s apartment minutes before first responders. She said she had a bad feeling about a friend Calum was hanging out with and attributes the timing to mother’s intuition.
Mioara and police entered the apartment and found Calum unconscious. She says it took two minutes for paramedics to arrive and that in the meantime, police prevented her from administering Naloxone. Mioara is a registered nurse and says she always carries the life-saving drug, which can reverse the effects of opioid overdoses.
Firefighters and EMS eventually gave Calum two doses of Naloxone, which Mioara says was insufficient.
Steven Whytock arrived a few minutes after Mioara and tried to perform CPR on his son. However, he said he was blocked from doing so by officers who restrained him with a baton. Both he and his wife say Calum might have survived if he received sustained medical attention.
The family’s biggest issue is with how Calum’s death was investigated. They say the investigating officer had “tunnel vision” when he concluded that Calum’s death was a non-criminal overdose. They claim that even though carfentanil was identified by the medical examiner as the cause of death, police did nothing to determine the source of the drug.
Chief Dale McFee, who is in charge of police discipline, dismissed all of the allegations, concluding there was insufficient evidence to convict the officers at a disciplinary hearing.
The Whytocks appealed to the Law Enforcement Review Board (LERB), an arm’s length civilian organization that hears appeals related to misconduct.
The board has a limited role when it comes to reviewing a chief’s decision. In cases where an investigation was “grossly” inadequate, it can return the case to a chief for further investigation.
In the Whytock’s case, however, it found no significant errors in McFee’s decision.
“In the board’s view, the chief considered all the evidence gathered related to Calum’s death and the investigative steps taken, including the additional evidence the (Whytocks) provided during the investigation,” the board wrote in its July 14 decision.
“The evidence before him indicated it was reasonable for the officers to conclude that Calum’s death was accidental and that the source of the drugs could not be determined.”
Mioara Whytock said they will continue to press for answers in their son’s death, possibly through a judicial inquiry.
“We feel that Calum never got justice,” she said.
In 2017, 687 Albertans died of accidental overdoses. The crisis has worsened in the years since, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 1,300 Albertans died of overdoses in 2020, with most of those deaths linked to opioids. The first five months of 2021 alone saw 624 overdose deaths.