WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
The family of a junior Vancouver police officer who died by suicide is taking the Vancouver Police Department to court, two years after an investigation found that a senior police officer was in an inappropriate relationship with her.
In January 2019, Const. Nicole Chan took her own life after earlier coming forward with allegations that her superior, Sgt. David Van Patten, was engaging in an inappropriate relationship with her.
One of the allegations was that Van Patten, who worked in the department's human resources wing, had made Chan agree to not disclose their relationship to anyone, including mental health professionals.
The Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner (OPCC) subsequently looked into the matter and found that three allegations of discreditable conduct were substantiated against Van Patten.
Though Van Patten resigned before the investigation wrapped up, the OPCC said his record would show he was dismissed and suspended without pay.
Now, Chan's family is suing the VPD, Van Patten, and the City of Vancouver among other defendants. They are seeking damages for, among other things, "loss of enjoyment of life [and] loss of guidance, care and companionship."
In a civil suit filed in January in the B.C. Supreme Court, the family alleges that the defendants contributed to Chan's suicide and that the VPD did not have policies in place to help Chan.
The defendants have not filed statements of defence. None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Criminal charges were recommended
The family's lawsuit states that Chan first came into contact with Van Patten as she was applying for an internal job in 2016.
According to the lawsuit, the sergeant "began acting flirtatious" and sent Chan personal text messages. They subsequently got into a relationship.
However, after their relationship "became turbulent," and after Chan discovered that Van Patten was her HR file handler, she filed a complaint with the VPD and WorkSafeBC, according to the lawsuit.
The OPCC subsequently took up an investigation. After the nature of the allegations became known, the New Westminster Police Department took up a criminal investigation into Van Patten, suspending the OPCC investigation.
In January 2018, according to the suit, the NWPD recommended criminal charges against Van Patten. However, the B.C. Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute the case, which meant the OPCC investigation could resume.
Chan's suicide came a little over two weeks after she provided testimony to the OPCC about her relationship with Van Patten.
The suit states that she "described the negative effects on her mental health [and] her feelings of exploitation and coercion; and her fear that she would never be able to return to her career path of deployable work."
The OPCC noted in its 2020 decision that there was a significant power imbalance apparent in the relationship between Chan and Van Patten.
"Sergeant Van Patten was in a position ... to have some knowledge, and even withhold information that may have had an impact on decisions affecting Constable Chan," the decision read.
The OPCC had recommended in 2020 that the Vancouver police board use an independent expert to review the department's policies on workplace relationships involving power dynamics, supervisory and leadership functions, and vulnerable employees.
The family's lawsuit states that Chan was in a relationship with another officer, Sgt. Greg McCullough, beginning around March 2015.
The OPCC did not cite McCullough by name in its 2018-19 annual report, but did call for a five-day suspension for a police officer who was involved in a personal, intimate relationship with a police officer who was under his direct supervision and that the relationship was not disclosed to his supervisor.
The report also noted the same officer entered into a relationship with another police officer, knowing that officer was in a vulnerable state. The watchdog recommended a 10-day suspension, to be served concurrently.
According to the lawsuit, McCullough resigned before the OPCC investigation finished, and he had shown "remorse for his behaviour."
A few years later, while working as an army reservist, McCullough was removed from then-defence-minister Harjit Sajjan's department in 2021 after the relationship with Chan came to light. It is unclear whether he is still employed by the defence ministry.
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.