Seventy-seven people have died in police chases over a 10-year period in Canada, according to a study by an independent public watchdog.
The study, released under federal freedom of information law, analyzed 871 lawsuits involving the RCMP and other police forces nationwide. It revealed that officers were injured in seven percent of the lawsuits reviewed by researchers.
Drivers and passengers of fleeing vehicles were injured in 23% of chases, while innocent people were injured in 10% of cases.
“The decision to initiate, join, or disengage from a pursuit is a calculated and time-sensitive decision made by frontline police…” the study says. “An officer’s discretion could potentially have consequences for his own safety and that of the public.”
Dated September 2021, the unpublished study by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission Against the RCMP covers the 10-year period ending in 2019 and is based on media reports.
Lawsuits that did not make the news are not included.
The “RCMP recognizes that police pursuits can pose a danger to public and police safety,” said Robin Percival, spokesperson for RCMP headquarters in Ottawa.
In 2021, the RCMP revised its emergency vehicle policy to state that constables may only initiate or continue a vehicle pursuit if they reasonably believe the suspect has committed (or is about to commit) a serious act of violence – and only if they don’t do it immediately. arresting the suspect would pose a greater risk to public safety than a prosecution.
The old policy stated that an RCMP officer could initiate a pursuit when a suspicious driver refused to stop for a peace officer and tried to evade arrest. The policy did not require officers to prosecute drivers simply for trying to evade arrest and said prosecutions should be reviewed in cases where the driver could be identified and apprehended at another time.
The new policy also requires all frontline RCMP members to successfully complete an updated online course on the use of emergency vehicles. Previously, only supervisors were required to take the course.
Each course module contains scenario-based learning to provide RCMP officers with real-world examples they may encounter in the line of duty, Percival said.
RCMP say using planes is ‘a significant cost’
The study indicates that aerial pursuits – helicopter, drone or fixed-wing aircraft – are a safer and more effective option than ground pursuits. They are also more expensive.
“One of the main benefits of using air support is that it allows police to safely and effectively monitor the movements of suspects from a distance when assisting tactical units in the field, thereby reducing the direct interaction between fugitive suspects, pursuing units and the public,” the study states.
Of the 114 aerial chases analyzed in the study, only three ended without anyone being arrested. Police engaged in aerial pursuits typically use infrared cameras to track the heat signatures of suspects fleeing their vehicles and hiding.
Alberta accounted for 38% of these 114 aerial pursuits, while 23% took place in British Columbia and 22% in Ontario.
The RCMP was involved in 57% of the air pursuits and 52% of the spike mat incidents examined in the study. In 2019, the force employed 26% of the 67,618 police officers in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.
Percival said that while aerial pursuits are effective, “planes are a significant cost” and the additional investment “must be weighed against other priorities”.
Among non-RCMP agencies, the Winnipeg Police Service’s Air Operations Unit was involved in 101 vehicle “tracks/chases” in 2020, according to its annual report. In 2020, the Saskatoon Police Department Air Support Unit was instrumental in apprehending 251 suspects, up 22% from 2019.
Spiked belts used in about a quarter of cases: assessment
The study also found that in nearly a quarter of police pursuits, suspicious drivers collided with (or attempted to collide with) police vehicles.
Spike belts were used in 25% of cases – which often involved stolen vehicles – and were successful in nearly two-thirds of those cases. Stolen pickup trucks were the most common vehicle involved in pursuits, and fugitive suspects were overwhelmingly male.
Ontario and Alberta each accounted for 24% of the total prosecutions involving studded belts. Just over half of all cases where spike belts were deployed involved the RCMP.
Often, the pursuing officers used additional force to apprehend the suspect, such as police dogs, batons, Tasers and firearms.
“Although the use of spiked belts has been promoted as a means of apprehending a suspect, representative data have not demonstrated a significant reduction in risk to public and officer safety,” the study found.
Ontario’s Police Services Act contains a regulation on police pursuits that requires officers to weigh the seriousness of the crime — the need to catch the suspect — against the risk to public safety.
OPP spokesman Bill Dickson said filing a lawsuit is a “last resort option” and is only considered “when other alternatives are not available. or unsatisfactory”.
During a pursuit, he said, officers “must continually assess whether the risk to public safety in the pursuit outweighs the risk to public safety if the suspect is not immediately apprehended.” .
An Ontario Provincial Police officer pleaded guilty to careless driving
All prosecutions are overseen by a supervisor, Dickson added. And while the officer involved in the chase can stop it at any time, the supervising sergeant “has final decision-making responsibility,” he said.
const. Timothy Groves pleaded guilty to careless driving and was fined $2,500 on December 22, 2020 by Provincial Offenses Court in London, Ontario in a police pursuit. The most serious criminal charges — two counts of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing bodily harm and one count of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle — were dropped.
Porsche Clark, then 28, and her daughter Skyla – aged 9 at the time – were seriously injured on July 28, 2019, when the cab they were traveling in was hit by the Groves police cruiser while pursuing two bank robbery suspects.
Kevin Egan, a personal injury attorney representing the Clarks, said he believes the OPP’s prosecution policy is adequate – as long as officers follow it.
“It requires constant risk-reward assessment,” he said.
To complicate matters, a police pursuit can straddle multiple police jurisdictions, requiring officers and supervisors from different police departments to constantly assess the risk of continued pursuit.
In the case of the Clarks, the high-speed chase began with the Sarnia Police Department, was taken over by provincial police, and eventually came under the jurisdiction of the London Police Department.
The statement filed by the Clarks in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in July 2021 describes a chase that reached speeds of at least 180 km/h. The statement said spike belts were deployed twice during the chase – unsuccessfully – the suspect vehicle ran towards police and its driver ignored a police officer pointing a gun at him, and a OPP vehicle collided with another car containing a family, resulting in injuries.
Egan said no defense has been filed in the civil suit and he expects the case to be settled out of court.
The Clarks’ statement seeks $13 million in damages.
A high-stakes decision
The claim says Porsche Clark suffered multiple serious injuries, including a broken neck, collapsed lung, spinal fracture and brain damage. The allegation states that her daughter suffered “internal decapitation, a ligamentous separation of her spine from the base of her skull”.
Egan said he was still amazed that none of his clients were killed. He said the fact that Skyla “can now walk on her own and breathe without a tube and can eat is absolutely a miracle”.
The Police Chases Study concludes that there is a lack of “publicly accessible, standardized and comprehensive data collection and reporting” on police chases in Canada and calls for further study.
Neil Boyd, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, said an officer’s decision to pursue a suspect or quash a suspect can be as important as the decision to use a weapon. fire.
“It doesn’t quite have the lethality of a shootout…but it’s a very similar type of decision,” he said.
Boyd said that while the study “raises some interesting questions,” he would like to know more about the individual circumstances of the prosecutions cited in the study and the relevance of police actions.
“It depends on what the villain did and the threat to the community,” he said. “We need more details.”