Alberta’s police watchdog is at “critical mass” when it comes to the number of investigations it can handle thanks in part to the increased complexity of sensitive investigations and a jump in police-involved shootings in 2018.
The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) was directed to probe 71 cases last year ranging from fatal motor vehicle accidents involving police to physical altercations to the review of other police files from out of province.
Last year about a third of its case load — or 26 files — centred on police-involved shootings in Alberta. Eleven of the cases were fatal encounters while another six involved serious injuries.
Calgary Police Service officers were involved in cases that resulted in six deaths, one serious injury and two discharge of firearms. RCMP officers were involved in three deaths, five serious injuries and three discharge of firearms.
Two deaths involved Edmonton Police Service officers, including 34-year-old Buck Evans, who was shot dead by police during a traffic stop that was part of a surveillance operation near 71 Street and 79 Avenue in the King Edward Park neighbourhood on Boxing Day.
One of the 26 files from 2018 was the review of a case in Newfoundland and another two relate to an open investigation into the conduct of an off duty police member.
ASIRT executive director Sue Hughson said it was impossible to predict the number of files each year they are asked to investigate.
“Right now the workload is just steadily increasing,” Hughson said in a mid-week interview.
“It’s not tapering off at all … we are functioning at pretty much critical mass.”
The total number of files assigned to ASIRT was up slightly from the previous year’s tally of 70 but significantly lower than in 2016, when the agency was asked to investigate 83 files.
“I do think that if you look at some of the precursors that are underlying some of the confrontations that police get involved in, the presence of meth in our communities is a significant problem,” Hughson said.
“It tends to show up on many of our files and it’s the type of drug that the first impact is judgement, which may explain why people are doing or acting the way they are acting.”
Under the criminal code, officers are not entitled to use lethal force unless certain circumstances exist, Hughson said.
The main justification is that there is an objectively reasonable fear that the person presents an immediate threat to the life or are in a position to cause grievous bodily harm to another person or the officer, she said.
Officers must also look at what other options are available, such as what kind of risk the suspect presents, whether there are weapons involved, the urgency or immediacy of the situation, and the ability to reposition so there is no longer a threat or to de-escalate.
“You don’t just get to use lethal force all the time,” she said.
Nor do officers want to.
“No matter the case we have had, I can tell you unequivocally across the board that no one wanted to be involved in the lethal use of force. Nobody is looking for this,” she said.
Hughson said that over the long term, the watchdog will require more support such as a dedicated anti-corruption team that could work exclusively on the types of files that are typically more sensitive, more complex and that put a significant strain on the finite resources of ASIRT if an undercover operation or wiretaps are required.
ASIRT investigated 16 police-involved shootings in 2017 which represents a 62 per cent increase year-over-year.
Here are some of the key cases from last year:
Jan. 27 — A 43-year-old Calgary man is fatally shot by Calgary Police Service members after he leapt from a second-storey apartment and confronted police following a brief standoff.
March 2 — A 47-year-old man armed with a knife and suffering a self-inflicted injury suffers a non life-threatening gunshot wound to the abdomen when shot by an Athabasca RCMP member.
March 4 — Three Strathcona County RCMP members fire their weapons at a 40-year-old Sherwood Park man who was earlier being treated by EMS personnel for a self-inflicted stab wound. The man was transported to hospital in a serious but stable condition.
March 16 — A Rocky Mountain House RCMP member fired their gun at a car on the O’Chiese First Nation that had been reported stolen and failed to stop for police. The 28-year-old driver was unhurt when he was finally arrested.
March 27 — Hunting for a man wanted for armed robbery and attempted car jacking, Calgary police track the suspect to a garage in the city. As they approach the burning structure, shots are fired and an officer is struck. The remaining officers return fire. When the blaze is finally extinguished the body of the man is located.
March 29 — An RCMP member is shot and injured following a police pursuit involving a 21-year-old man on Highway 16 near Evansburg. Officers returned fire and fatally wounded the driver.
April 9 — A lone plainclothes Calgary police constable shoots a 26-year-old man from close range after a brief confrontation. A folding knife in an open position was found near the shooting victim. The man died at the scene.
April 19 — An Okotoks RCMP member shoots at a stolen Jeep that had earlier struck a police vehicle, a local supermarket and several parked cars. The driver of the vehicle was uninjured.
May 17 — A 33-year-old woman dies after being shot by Calgary police during a confrontation in a house in the city’s southeast. The woman and a 17-year-old male, who were known to each other, had been barricaded inside a room when officers forced entry. The male was subdued using an ARWEN launcher. The woman died at the scene.
July 3 — A man wanted by Mounties is located in a vehicle at the Chickadee Creek rest stop near Whitecourt. Police approach the car and a confrontation occurs leading to officers shooting at the vehicle and killing the 31-year-old man.
July 12 — A 33-year-old man is shot in the hand and the abdomen following a police chase involving a stolen Dodge Ram truck near the southeast community of Ogden. The man suffered non life-threatening injuries.
July 19 — A 40-year-old man on the Frog Lake First Nation is fatally shot following hours-long stand-off with members of the RCMP Emergency Response Team. A sawed-off firearm is located at the scene.
July 27 — A Calgary police officer discharges his firearm during the culmination of a police pursuit of a stolen Ford truck in the city’s northwest. No-one was struck and no-one was injured.
Aug. 18 — An Edmonton police officer fatally shoots the 30-year-old driver of a stolen vehicle that was involved in a hit-and-run collision near 123 Ave. and 66 St. Police recover a sawed-off, lever-action .30-30 calibre rifle from the vehicle.
Aug. 31 — A 25-year-old man is shot and killed in northeast Calgary after a confrontation with officers in the Redstone neighbourhood. Initially an ARWEN launcher was used to subdue the man but another officer also shot at the man several times. He later died in hospital.
Sept. 25 — A Calgary police officer discharges their firearm during an attempted traffic stop of a stolen pick-up truck. No-one was struck or injured.
Oct. 22 — A 21-year-old man is seriously injured on the Samson Cree First Nation when, during a confrontation with RCMP, an officer “discharged his carbine in the direction” of the man. The suspect was found to have a gunshot wound to the leg but the injury was considered non life-threatening.
Nov. 20 — A 24-year-old man suffers non life-threatening injuries after being shot at by Hinton RCMP during a stolen vehicle call. The man was unaware he had been shot but was transported to hospital where he was released later that same day. An RCMP officer struck by a vehicle during the confrontation suffered minor injuries.
Dec. 4 — A 21-year-old man is shot in the leg and shoulder by Grande Prairie RCMP officers after the truck he was driving allegedly deliberately tried to ram an RCMP vehicle before speeding off. Mounties tracked the truck and the occupants and exchanged gunfire. Mounties recover two sawed-off long-barrelled firearms from the vehicle.
Dec. 25 — A 29-year-old woman is fatally shot by Calgary police after she tried to evade capture in a vehicle that had earlier been seen driving erratically.
Dec. 26 — A 34-year-old man is killed in a hail of bullets following a high-risk arrest by Edmonton Police Service in the city’s southeast. The victim is later named as Buck Evans.
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