On May 17, 2018, the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) was directed to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of a 33-year-old woman and injury to her 17-year-old son during an encounter with members of the Calgary Police Service (CPS). During the encounter, two CPS tactical officers fired at the woman, who died as a result of those injuries.
ASIRT’s investigation was comprehensive and thorough, using current best investigative practices. ASIRT interviewed all relevant police and civilian witnesses, directed a scene examination, and obtained all relevant CPS dispatch and communications data. ASIRT investigators attended the autopsy and later obtained an autopsy report from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME).
In this case, one of the officers, who shall be referred to as SO1, voluntarily provided evidence while the other officer, who shall be referred to as SO2, declined to provide evidence, as is his constitutional right. In law, a subject officer has the same constitutional right to remain silent as any other Canadian citizen. While a subject officer cannot be compelled to provide evidence, the decision to remain silent can often leave a significant evidentiary gap, particularly on the issues of what the officer may have intended, perceived and believed, and any explanation as to why an officer acted the way they did. Evidence from a subject officer, when voluntarily provided, can often prove instrumental to a fulsome understanding of the event. In this case, the evidence from SO1 combined with other evidence provided sufficient evidence to reasonably assess and make an informed determination regarding the officers’ use of lethal force.
At the time of her death, the involved Indigenous woman was 33 years old and the young man with her was her 17-year-old son. She had an extensive criminal history involving violence and weapons offences and had been previously designated as a long-term offender (LTO), pursuant to the provisions of the Criminal Code of Canada. She was subject to a long-term supervision order with numerous conditions, including that she reside at a Calgary community residential facility for women transitioning from prison back into the community, and that she abide by a curfew. She had failed to return to the residence on May 14, 2018, and was unlawfully at large. A Canada-wide warrant had been issued for her arrest for breach of her long-term supervision order.
She had a tragic and troubling history. She had been in and out of custody since she was 13 years old. She had been the victim of physical, sexual and emotional abuse over the course of her life. Her history included time in a residential school, poverty, family violence, family and personal drug abuse, involvement in gangs and, as noted above, an extensive criminal record. She had contemplated and attempted suicide on previous occasions. While a victim in so many ways, and perhaps a product of her environment, she was also a very dangerous woman who had a history of violence and was recognized as having significant levels of anger and hostility. She had been assessed to be a high risk to reoffend violently. She had a history of both the possession and use of knives as weapons, and had been involved in previous incidents where she had stabbed someone. Her triggers for violence were described as subtle and many; it took very little to set her off, and once triggered, she simply struck out without warning.
There does seem to be one constant: by all accounts, she wanted a connection to her son. She was extremely troubled and her issues were deeply entrenched, but when asked about her hopes for the future, she focused on that possible connection. Unfortunately, her son also had significant issues and their relationship was not healthy.
The young man, her 17-year-old son, had been living in Regina, Sask., but had travelled to Calgary to visit his mother. Having left Saskatchewan, he had outstanding warrants for drug offences and breaching conditions. He had a significant youth criminal record, including weapons offences and violence, was the subject of a Criminal Code weapons prohibition and was also on probation. Lastly, he was being sought on an outstanding warrant for aggravated assault and unlawful confinement related to an incident that had occurred on May 8, 2018, in Calgary.
On May 17, 2018, at 11:12 a.m., CPS received a call from a person who reported that someone had broken into a secondary basement suite in his bi-level house located on Penbrooke Close SE in Calgary, and that the perpetrators appeared to still be inside. The door to the basement had been pried open and he could hear someone inside. He could not open the basement door, as it appeared to be barricaded from the inside.
A number of police units responded to the scene, including patrol members and a Canine Unit. As multiple units arrived and the homeowner was questioned, a supervisor advised them to hold containment outside the residence. A command post was set up at the Penbrooke Community Centre and EMS was requested to stage at that location.
Police announcements were made into the basement suite with no response. The police service dog and his handler, along with additional officers, cleared the upstairs suite and it was confirmed that there was no access to the basement suite through the main floor, as the access door had been nailed shut. Having received no response to the announcements, officers sought tactical unit assistance, as they had proper breaching tools and training to both gain access to the basement and deal with barricaded individuals.
At 12:01 p.m., officers heard an ongoing verbal dispute in the basement between what sounded like a male voice and a female voice. The female voice was screaming. Police attempted to make verbal contact with the people inside the basement but received no response. At 12:04 p.m., officers on scene attempted to gain entry through the main basement door using a sledgehammer. Five officers and the police service dog ultimately gained entry into the basement, concerned for the welfare of the female who was screaming and sounded like she was in distress.
Upon entry, it was confirmed that a futon had been pushed against the basement doorway to barricade the entrance into the suite. Officers observed that the furniture had been overturned and strewn all over the basement and the premises appeared to have been ransacked. Officers began to clear the basement while moving furniture out of the way and announcing their presence. As they searched, the officers came upon a door that would not open. While the screaming had stopped, they could hear what was believed to be a male and a female voice within the room. At one point, officers overheard the female voice state “I want my parole officer” although it did not appear she was speaking directly to police.
The officers present continued to call out that they were police officers, that the occupants were under arrest and to come out. No response was ever received from the occupants. When officers attempted to kick the door in, it barely moved, causing them to conclude that, much like the main entrance, the door had been barricaded from the inside.
Between 12:08 and 12:10 p.m., four tactical police officers arrived on scene, including the involved officers, SO1 and SO2. At 12:11 p.m., one of the tactical officers reported that a female voice from inside the room was calling for help. The officers sought permission from a supervisor to make entry into the room, which was granted. One of the tactical officers repeatedly used a ram to hit the interior door, breaking off the top half of the door in pieces, while the bottom half of the door remained barricaded by a full-size dryer. As the top half of the door was being removed, the female person continued to sound like she was in distress. While one officer went out to the tactical vehicle to obtain chemical munitions that could be deployed into the room, the two subject officers and a third tactical officer remained closest to the door of what turned out to be a small utility or laundry room.
SO1 provided evidence that once the top half of the door was cleared, he observed a male person and a female person struggling inside the utility room. The male person, now known to have been the 17-year-old son, had what appeared to be a knife in his hand. Commands to drop the knife were issued by both SO1 and SO2, but when the young man failed to do so, SO1 fired five rounds from what is referred to as a less lethal option, an Arwen launcher, which struck the young man in the legs and buttocks until, on the ground, he lost control of the knife. An Arwen launcher carries five less lethal baton rounds. Having discharged all five rounds available in the Arwen launcher in his attempt to disarm the man, SO1 transitioned to his service pistol.
Within seconds, the woman took the knife and, despite commands to drop the weapon, raised the knife and proceeded to stab her son in the chest. When she raised the knife in what appeared to be a move to stab him again, both SO1 and SO2 fired their service pistols, striking the woman repeatedly and sending her to the ground. The young man remained on the ground, critically wounded.
As one officer began to render emergency medical assistance to the woman, other officers carried the young man outside, where those officers attempted to contain and render emergency medical assistance until EMS could arrive from the staging point. Upon their arrival, the two paramedics were advised that there was one person in the residence who had been shot and a second person in the backyard who had been stabbed.
One paramedic responded to the basement while the second paramedic responded to the backyard. The paramedic who responded to the backyard noted that the young man was agitated and confused, thrashing on the ground. When examined, he had what appeared to be two stab wounds to the left chest above the nipple. The paramedic characterized his status as “red,” meaning immediate risk of death, and that they would need additional resources.
The paramedic who responded to the basement found the woman in the utility room with two tactical officers present, one who was rendering medical aid. The woman was unresponsive. In addition to the gunshot wounds, the woman appeared to have several lacerations or possible stab wounds. Following assessment, the paramedic confirmed her to be deceased at 12:20 p.m.
Four officers assisted EMS in moving the young man to the ambulance for immediate transport to hospital, as he began to lose consciousness.
An autopsy determined the woman’s cause of death to be multiple gunshot wounds to the torso, right arm and right thigh. It was not possible to determine the exact number, as some of the wounds were possible re-entry wounds. Seven projectiles and a fragment from a projectile were recovered from her body. In addition to the gunshot wounds, the autopsy revealed a single stab wound to the left thoracic or chest cavity, front to back, that did not injure any organs. There were an additional four sharp force injuries (likely caused by a knife) to the left chest, being incised cuts or scrapes, and one on the right index finger. A pill bottle containing an opioid pain medication in the name of the person whose home had been broken into was recovered from her person. A toxicology report noted the presence of alcohol, methamphetamine and its metabolites, cocaine and its metabolites, an opioid pain medication, and the psychoactive component of cannabis, in addition to other over-the-counter and prescription medications.
The young man was interviewed on two occasions. On the morning of May 18, 2018, he initially provided investigators with a false name and stated he was 18 years of age. He indicated that he had no recollection of the events that occurred before he woke up in hospital with two stab wounds. Eventually, during the same recorded interview, he acknowledged his identity, that he was 17 years old, and that he had been with his mother the previous day. He advised he had come to Calgary to visit his mother, who was staying at a halfway house.
He advised that he and his mother had decided to try and find an apartment to live, and were staying at various hotels while they conducted their search. He indicated he did not remember the name of the last hotel he stayed at. He advised investigators that he had consumed a gram of cocaine and a bottle of hard liquor the day of the incident. He advised that his mother had also consumed alcohol and used drugs. He was unable to recall where they consumed those items. He indicated that he did not know how he got stabbed, and suggested that perhaps police had stabbed him. He told investigators that he wished he could have died the night before, too.
On May 23, 2018, the young man reiterated that he did not remember much about the incident or how he got stabbed. He stated that he believed that the police stabbed him because he did not believe that his mother would stab him. He remembered waking up in the hospital and being advised that his mother had been shot. He said he did not know how he got into somebody else’s house, but that he had just been following his mom. Again, he asserted that he did not remember doing anything after doing some drugs. He did, however, later advise that he had had an argument with his mother about barricading herself in the laundry room. He shared that he had told her not to barricade herself in and to surrender, but she said that she did not want to because she wanted to stay with him. He said that she had barricaded the laundry room by moving a washing machine and other things in front of the door.
He said he remembered hearing banging on the door and he knew it was the police. Before the banging, he was “chilling” with his mom, who was saying that she loved him. She told him not to cry “when she was gone or if something happened, because everything will be okay.” He confirmed that his mother was on parole, that she was in breach of her conditions of release, and that he thought that there was some sort of order about his mom that said “do not detain or approach, shoot on sight or something like that.” He remembered that they were in the “laundry room” and his mother told him to “block the door, block the door,” so he blocked the door for her.
He told ASIRT investigators that his mother did not want to go back to jail, which was the reason she barricaded the room. As he did not want her to go back to jail either, he stayed with her.
When asked about his level of intoxication, the young man stated that he would have been at a 10 out of 10, severely intoxicated. He indicated that he felt his mom would have been at about a five out of 10 in terms of intoxication and that she had been saying she didn’t want to go back to jail and was crying. When he heard police banging on the door he remembered taking a “last shot” of alcohol from a bottle of rum. He also indicated that he and his mother also did some drugs while the banging was happening.
While in the room, he had found some pills and he told investigators that they both tried to take them because they did not want to be locked up in jail. He said that when he took some of the pills, his mom told him not to take them, so he spit them out. He said his mother took pills and he believed she was attempting suicide. He said that he knew he would be going back to jail for some breaches. He shared that his mom told him, “I’m not going back to jail, my boy, so whatever happens, just know that I love you and everything is going to be okay.” He thought that meant “she is going to go out, like she went out.”
The young man now stated that the last thing he remembered was the police yelling and banging on the door, and that at that point he had a knife in his hand. While he had a knife, he felt he would not have used it on his mother and she would not have used it on him.
In perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the interview, the young man said that he wished he had died with his mom. He said that he had had suicidal thoughts before and that he had attempted to commit suicide two to three months earlier, in part because of his relationship with his mother and their separation. Prior to these events, he said the last time he had seen her was when he was three years old, more than 14 years earlier.
According to the young man, his memories of the event ended prior to police breaking the door in and gaining access to the room, and he did not know what either the police or his mother had done. He believed that the police used the knife on him and then shot his mother. He did not see the police shoot his mother, but they were the only ones with guns. To be clear, his statements regarding being stabbed by the police were speculative, and throughout his various interviews, he consistently maintained that he did not remember who stabbed him.
To demonstrate how quickly the situation deteriorated, radio communications and witness evidence confirmed that the time between the initial confrontation, the disarming of the young man and the shooting of the woman was slightly over 21 seconds. Other than the subject officers, none of the other officers present could see what was happening inside the utility room. As described by the other officers, SO1, armed with the Arwen launcher, and SO2, armed with his service pistol, gained access to the room and shouted commands to drop the knife, then five rounds were heard being fired from the Arwen launcher, a distinct sound easily distinguishable from the discharge of a firearm. At 12:13:13 p.m., one of those officers reported that the Arwen had been deployed, the reasonable inference being that the Arwen deployment had occurred in the preceding second(s). After a period of several seconds, SO1 and SO2 were heard once again yelling commands to drop the knife. In response to whatever might have been happening in the room, both officers were then heard discharging their service pistols repeatedly and simultaneously. At 12:13:34 p.m., it was communicated over the radio that shots had been fired. The witness evidence and radio communications captured simultaneously are consistent with SO1’s account of the sequence of events.
At its core, the focus of an ASIRT investigation can be described as the collection of evidence to, as much as possible, determine factually what occurred during an incident, and to allow for a reasoned and principled analysis of whether those actions were lawful.
Under the Criminal Code, police officers are granted certain powers and authorities to facilitate the performance of what can be a challenging job. Under Section 25 of the Criminal Code, a police officer is authorized to use as much force as is reasonably necessary in the administration or enforcement of the law. This can, in limited circumstances, include force that is intended or likely to cause grievous bodily harm or death. Resort to lethal force is only authorized in circumstances where an officer believes, on reasonable grounds, that it is necessary for the self-preservation of the person or the preservation of anyone under that person’s protection from death or grievous bodily harm.
Further, under Section 34 of the Criminal Code, any person, including a police officer, is entitled to the use of reasonable force in defence of themselves or another person.
In order for a police officer’s use of force to be not only authorized but protected, the officer must be acting in the lawful execution of their duties, a concept often referred to as “lawful placement.” In this particular case, there is no question that all involved officers were acting in the lawful execution of their duties. The initial response was to a break and enter into a private residence in progress. Upon their arrival on scene, it was immediately apparent that the individuals barricaded in the residence were unlawfully present. As such, the officers had reasonable grounds at the outset to believe an indictable offence or offences had been committed. The involved officers, including SO1 and SO2, had the authority to arrest those barricaded in the residence. It is also beyond dispute that both the woman and her son understood that those issuing commands from outside the barricaded utility room were members of law enforcement.
The officers did not know who they were dealing with until well after the fact. The backgrounds of the woman and her son are relevant to a complete understanding of how the situation in that utility room deteriorated into violence. Furthermore, the background of the woman, while unknown to the officers, was entirely consistent with the manner in which things unfolded, including how her behaviour changed in a moment, with her striking out violently without warning. Her violent attack on her son with a knife was consistent with her past behaviour, her long-term offender designation and the assessment that she was a high risk of reoffending violently. Additionally, the woman was well aware that she had not only breached her LTO supervision but had committed additional criminal offences, actions that would likely send her back to jail, potentially for a lengthy period of time. Since the woman had spent a considerable portion of her life in custody, the evidence that she indicated she would not go back to jail rings true.
The apprehension of barricaded individuals for a break and enter, while not routine, would not have been a matter of critical urgency. However, the situation changed in an instant. While officers had been, to some extent, taking their time, having been on scene for almost an hour, the situation in the utility room could be heard escalating until it reached a point where it sounded like the woman was in distress. In that moment, the incident changed to a critical situation that compelled officers to act.
While it is not possible to establish with any certainty how the woman sustained the stab wound and lacerations, the injuries occurred prior to police access to the room. This means there were only two possibilities: either they were inflicted by the young man, or they were self-inflicted.
Upon breaking down the top of the door and accessing the utility room, officers were presented with a dangerous situation: two individuals engaged in a struggle, one of them armed with a knife. When the man failed to drop the knife, SO1 deployed a less lethal option. While this course of action required the use of all the rounds in the Arwen launcher, the man was successfully disarmed.
Undoubtedly, SO1 and SO2 thought that this would be the successful resolution to the incident. That was not to be the case. In a horrifying example of how unpredictable situations can be, officers were required to act immediately in their attempt to save the young man. While the young man may be unwilling to accept or acknowledge it, there was only one other person in that room in a position to stab him. As SO1 and SO2, the only officers immediately present, watched the woman stab the young man and commanded her to drop the knife, both were armed with their service pistols. In those fleeting seconds, both fired their service pistols when she continued to stab him. The autopsy confirmed that shots fired by both officers struck the woman. The evidence is unequivocal that in doing so, they very likely saved the young man’s life. Indeed, notwithstanding their quick action, the young man very narrowly avoided death, having sustained life-threatening injuries. This is a quintessential example of a situation where police officers must take immediate action using potentially lethal force against one individual to preserve the life of another. While they were able to address the threat that the young man presented to his mother, without loss of life, when she turned the tables and actually proceeded to stab him, that was no longer an option.
It must also be remembered that this result appeared to be the one contemplated by the woman before officers even gained access to that room. She had repeatedly asserted that she would not be returning to jail. Her actions, both deliberate and unequivocal, ensured that.
Based on the evidence available, the actions of the officers were only responsive to the situation where, objectively and subjectively, the woman, in those final moments, constituted an immediate and significant risk of grievous bodily harm or death to the young man, and indeed, very nearly caused his death. As the officers’ actions were taken for the purpose of not only defending the young man from additional grievous bodily harm, but also to preserve his very life, the officers’ use of lethal force was not only justified and reasonable but also absolutely necessary, and accordingly does not constitute an offence.
While the loss of life is never the ideal outcome, the officers had a fundamental duty to stop the woman to preserve the life of the young man. She had already stabbed him, inflicting critical injuries, and as she raised the knife to stab him again, the officers were placed in the worst possible situation where they had to use lethal force to prevent her from killing what turned out to be her own son.
There are significant gaps in the young man’s memory of that day, and he is unable to provide much insight into exactly what happened in those final moments. This is not necessarily the result of deliberate dishonesty. These events would have been horrifically traumatic and the young man had sustained life-threatening injuries that could have impacted not only his level of consciousness and ability to perceive and understand what was happening, but potentially his memory. Factoring in the impairment by drugs and alcohol, it is not inconceivable that he would have significant gaps in his memory.
It is impossible to make sense of a senseless event. That said, the woman had, on multiple occasions prior to these events when she was sober and more stable, shared that she loved and treasured the thought of her son. She had wanted to do better for him and had wanted him to have a better life than she had. Addiction and mental health issues prevented that, but one has to believe that had she been in an unaltered mental state, sober, stable and rational, she would have wanted her son to live.
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.