Although he was apprehended in Saskatchewan, initial contact between the individual and police occurred near Cold Lake, and led to a police pursuit that ended in a field in Saskatchewan. The majority of involved officers were Alberta RCMP officers. For these reasons, the decision was made to involve ASIRT. While uncommon, this approach has occurred in other cases where the triggering events occurred in Alberta but crossed into another province.
ASIRT’s investigation was comprehensive and thorough, and followed current investigative protocols. All relevant witnesses were interviewed. The involved officers, though not legally required to do so, provided voluntary statements regarding their involvement in the matter. The RCMP vehicles were equipped with Watchguard video systems, which captured a portion of the man’s interaction with officers and the police service dog as the man was placed in handcuffs.
On Oct. 1, 2018, RCMP received information that the 23-year-old man and another man had taken a black Chevrolet Cruze without consent and were in possession of a loaded handgun and a rifle.
Both the 23-year-old man and the other identified man were known to police. The 23-year-old man was known to carry firearms and had a criminal record for offences involving the illegal possession and use of firearms, robbery, criminal flight from police, and resisting arrest. In addition to the current complaint, the man was being sought for several robberies using firearms and additional criminal offences. He had been involved in a previous incident during which he was believed to have fired upon police. The other man had a similar criminal background.
The 23-year-old man was located driving the vehicle in the area of Range Road 421 and Highway 55, with a woman in the passenger seat. It appeared that the man became aware of the police presence, as he began driving in the wrong lane and into oncoming traffic before the officer activated his emergency equipment. As a result of the man’s behaviour, the officer activated his emergency lights and siren, but the man failed to stop the vehicle. A significant pursuit ensued.
It is not necessary to detail the pursuit for the purposes of our investigation, other than to say that the man’s driving objectively endangered public safety, the safety of the passenger in his vehicle, and the involved police officers. The pursuit ended several kilometres east of Pierceland, Sask., north of Highway 55, when the man’s vehicle began overheating and he abruptly drove off the roadway into a field. As the vehicle came to a stop, the man exited and attempted to flee on foot.
The man’s girlfriend, who was in the passenger seat, was interviewed. She advised that when they stopped the vehicle, she told the man not to resist police but that he exited the vehicle and attempted to flee on foot. She said that it was difficult for her see what was happening with the man as she was dealing with police herself, who approached her while she remained seated in the vehicle, telling her not to move.
As the man fled, one of the officers, a dog handler accompanied by a police service dog, exited a police vehicle and ordered him to stop, informing him that he was under arrest. The involved officers all describe the situation as dynamic, heightened by the belief that the man might be armed with a firearm. When the man failed to stop, the officer gave the police service dog the command to apprehend him.
As the dog caught up with him, the man turned and took a swing at the police dog. The dog latched onto the man’s right midsection. The man fought with the police dog, trying to pry the dog’s mouth open, grabbing and pulling on the dog’s ears or scruff as the dog whined but continued to bite. At one point, the man appeared to be attempting to put the dog in a headlock. The dog handler and another officer approached to place the man in handcuffs.
The next seconds were somewhat of a melee, as the police dog, the man, and the two officers engaged in a struggle as the officers tried unsuccessfully to gain control of the man’s hands, unsure whether he had a gun on his person. Multiple strikes to the head and a knee strike to the man’s torso were used by the two involved officers.
The Watchguard video recording system in a police vehicle arriving on scene captured the final seconds before the man was handcuffed. In the video, the man appears to struggle with both the officers and the dog. The dog can be seen biting and actively pulling on the man. As the dog handler grabs the police dog, the other officer manages to get the man on his stomach and handcuff his hands behind his back.
After the man was successfully handcuffed, the police dog remained latched on to the man. The dog handler stood over the dog and attempted, unsuccessfully, to get it to release its grip. For approximately 50 seconds, the police dog continued to bite the man while the handler attempted to pull him off, at one point attaching a lead. The dog finally released its grip on the man and was pulled off, the handler holding the clearly agitated dog with two hands.
The man was searched for weapons, but none were found. The man had sustained serious dog bites, including wounds to his abdominal area deep enough to expose tissue. The officers called for an ambulance, and attempted to make the affected person as comfortable as possible, providing him with a blanket and encouraging him to remain as still as possible to prevent worsening the abdominal wounds. After the man arrived at the hospital, doctors noted very serious dog bite injuries to his right abdominal wall and lumbar region, in addition to his right gluteal region. The man had also sustained a fracture of the right mandible. The injuries were serious enough to require multiple surgeries.
Police later received information that the man had, in fact, disposed of a firearm in the field. On Oct. 28, 2018, a loaded Tokarev TT Pistol containing three rounds was found in the field near the location where the vehicle was abandoned. While it is likely that the man or his passenger had possession of this firearm on Oct. 1, 2018, for the purposes of this assessment it is not necessary to resolve this issue. Even with the absence of the recovered firearm, there was ample information at the time to provide a reasonable belief that the affected person might be in possession of a firearm, and that he presented a heightened risk to the public and police.
As the injuries were the result of police conduct, it is necessary to turn to the question as to whether the involved officers acted lawfully.
A police officer is entitled in law to use force in the lawful execution of his duties provided he uses no more force than is reasonably necessary to carry out his lawful purpose. While police may have to resort to the use of force in the course of their duties, the allowable degree of force remains constrained by principles of proportionality, necessity and reasonableness.
The involved officers were clearly lawfully placed and acting in the lawful execution of their duties as police officers. There were reasonable grounds to believe that the man had committed a number of different serious criminal offences. They had the authority in law to arrest the man. While it is not possible to determine, with certainty, which officer fractured the man’s jaw, it is not necessary to resolve this issue if both officers were acting lawfully. The issue is whether the force used, involving both the deployment and control of the police service dog, and the use of head strikes, was necessary and reasonable.
Whether a person involved in an encounter with police has a criminal history can be relevant if officers are, firstly, aware of the person’s background at the time they are dealing with that person, and, secondly, that background has some relevance, objectively, to the situation unfolding and what risks one might subjectively and objectively perceive.
In this particular case, officers were faced with what would, both subjectively and objectively, be a potentially high-risk arrest. The man was known to police and had a criminal history for violence involving the use of firearms. He was the subject of a Criminal Code firearms prohibition. He was known to go to significant lengths to try and evade apprehension, including engaging in criminal flight, and had previously fired on police. He was wanted for a variety of offences, including a number of robberies involving the use of a firearm. In this case, he was reportedly in possession of a vehicle that had been taken without consent, had earlier been in the company of another known violent offender, and was believed to be in possible possession of a handgun, with access to a rifle that was in the trunk of the vehicle. Upon encountering police, he engaged in criminal flight and placed both the public and police at risk.
Given the above, police were well-advised to consider the man a potential threat to public and police safety. Equally important, it was both prudent and reasonable to believe that the affected person might be in possession of a firearm and that he was more than capable of using it.
Duty and the protection of the public required the apprehension of the man. Following his criminal flight, the man stopped only because the vehicle had overheated. When he fled on foot, it was impossible for the officers to know with any certainty whether he had a handgun in his possession, and it was reasonable to err on the side of caution. In these circumstances, it was reasonable for the sake of officer safety to deploy the police service dog to apprehend the man when he failed to respond to directions to stop.
Given the risk presented by the man, his non-compliance with commands, and his attempted flight on foot, the use of force was necessary. Furthermore, the use of intermediate levels of force, including the police service dog and the punches/strikes used by both officers to gain control and custody of the man, were both proportionate to the circumstances and reasonable.
The only potential issue would relate to the police dog’s continued bite even after the man had been placed in handcuffs. For an additional approximately 50 seconds, the dog refused to release the man and continued biting and pulling on the man while his handler attempted to gain control. Having been handcuffed, the need for the police dog’s engagement was no longer necessary.
In many respects, a police service dog is a use of force tool, not unlike an officer’s service pistol, baton, or a conducted energy weapon. That said, unlike the other tools, a police service dog is not an inanimate object. It is a sentient being with its own instincts. It is the subject of significant training and control by a handler but can act on instinct. One can reasonably expect that the police dog’s response would be slightly different when, as in this case, the man actively fought the dog, as opposed to circumstances where a person surrenders following contact with the dog. It is for this reason that intensive training is undertaken to attempt to ensure that, even in the most heightened situation, the police service dog remains capable of being controlled by its handler.
It must also be remembered that the use of police service dogs constitute an intermediate use of force that allow officers to more safely address high-risk situations, allowing them to deploy the dog where a subject is armed or may be armed with a weapon, particularly a firearm. If it is possible to handle such a situation without escalating the matter to its highest, and most potentially dangerous, response, that is a positive. There have been cases where officers have been dealing with a person believed to have a firearm that have resulted in the use of lethal force. As serious as the resulting injuries were in this case, the use of the police service dog was a much better available alternative to the potential use of a service pistol.
Examining the officer’s conduct involving the use of the police dog, one should be cautious about approaching a continuing use of force by breaking events into isolated portions as the entire event is a continuing transaction and there should be some recognition of this fact, as well as the exigencies of the moment. The standard for assessment of the officer’s control of the police dog is not perfection. In this case, the officer’s attempt to get the police dog to disengage was hampered by the dog’s heightened agitation. There was no evidence to suggest that the officer was acting in bad faith in his attempts to get the dog to disengage, or that he was motivated by malicious intent. One should also remain mindful that an officer “cannot be expected to measure the force used with exactitude”. This seems even more apropos when examining the conduct of an officer and his police service dog. In all of the circumstances, while the officer should continually work to improve his ability to control his police dog and should, if faced with a similar situation in the future, better recognize and reflect the urgency in gaining that control, the use of the police service dog did not, at any point during this encounter, amount to an unreasonable or excessive use of force.
It is truly unfortunate that the man, as a result of his contact with the two officers and the police service dog, sustained very serious injuries. While the consequences were terrible, that does not change the lawfulness of the officers’ actions. Upon review of the completed investigation, it is executive director Susan Hughson’s opinion that there are no reasonable grounds to believe that the officers committed a Criminal Code offence. There being no grounds to believe that an offence was committed by any police officer, no charges will be laid.
ASIRT’s mandate is to effectively, independently and objectively investigate incidents involving Alberta’s police that have resulted in serious injury or death to any person, as well as serious or sensitive allegations of police misconduct.
This release is distributed by the Government of Alberta on behalf of the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team.
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