It’s been 10 years since the last fatal police-involved shooting in Langley, and many of the questions that were raised after that incident are now back in the news as Canadian police forces, politicians, and the public debate the use of force by officers.
What has changed since 2010 in how police are investigated following a lethal encounter with a suspect or member of the public?
On Aug. 7, 2010, Alvin Wright was shot in the bedroom of his Langley City townhouse after what began with a 9-1-1 call by Wright’s widow.
The general facts were laid out at a 2012 B.C. Coroner’s Service inquest.
Wright, his wife Heather Hannon, Wright’s brother, and a friend were out drinking that evening. After the couple had an argument, Wright walked home on his own from Cloverdale – while the others drove.
At the house, Wright and Hannon argued, and Hannon called 9-1-1 after Wright kicked her out. She would tell the inquest that she wanted police assistance to get her things out of the home.
Several officers arrived and eventually went inside to check on Wright.
Sgt. Don Davidson of the Langley RCMP entered a bedroom and saw Wright, crouched in a closet, holding a knife. When Wright advanced on him, Davidson shot Wright once, killing him.
Davidson would later testify at the inquest that Wright’s last words were “I wasn’t going to stab you, dude.”
It was the first time in his policing career that Davidson had fired his weapon at a person.
The Independent Investigations Office (IIO) would not be set up until two years later, tasked as an arms-length civilian-headed agency that looks into every incident in which someone is injured or killed after any interaction with police.
In the meantime, both a Vancouver Police Department investigation and Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner looked into the Wright shooting, and ruled that the officers’ actions were reasonable.
On the stand, Davidson said that in that instant, he had no choice but to shoot, but was also emotional about his belief that he was put back on active duty too early – just two weeks after the shooting.
In the wake of the shooting, Wright’s family went public with their anger over his death, and a B.C. Coroner’s inquest called for changes in the way police approach similar incidents.
There have been some major changes in how police shootings are investigated during the past decade.
Since Wright was shot, the IIO has changed how police are investigated after an incident. Before, police investigated police, with an outside department, such as the VPD, brought in to look at local cases.
The IIO is civilian-led and can recommend criminal charges against officers.
But according to Donald Sorochan, the lawyer for Heather Hannon during the inquest, the way police interact with the public hasn’t changed enough.
The problem in the Wright case was that officers went into the home at all, Sorochan believes.
“My big issue with that case – why was the policeman going up the stairs?” Sorochan queried. “It was over and done with.”
There was some dispute about what had happened before RCMP arrived at Wright’s home, but no one but Wright was inside when police entered, and there was no suggestion anyone was in danger.
Sorochan is currently litigating another B.C. case of a police-involved shooting, and he noted that there is one factor that particularly makes it more likely that a person will be shot by police.
“It is the mentally ill that are more likely to be shot in Canada,” Sorochan said.
The coroner’s jury returned seven major recommendations in the Wright case, including around how police should announce themselves before entering a dwelling, how soon they should return to work, and how soon they should give statements to investigators about what happened.
Davidson didn’t give a statement until three months after the incident, when he prepared a written statement. At the inquest almost two years later, officers had conflicting accounts of how or whether they had announced that they were entering Wright’s room.
The way information is gathered from officers would be different today, under the IIO investigation process, said Ron MacDonald, the agency’s chief civilian director.
Under the IIO’s mandate, the officers with Wright could have been compelled to give statements to IIO investigators.
“Officers have a duty to cooperate with our investigations,” MacDonald said.
That duty was upheld in a recent court case involving the VPD. Several officers who had witnessed a shooting refused to give statements to the IIO unless they could see video and audio from the scene in advance.
The IIO refused, and took the officers to court. Judges at the B.C. Supreme Court – and in January, at the B.C. Court of Appeal – have upheld the IIO’s power to compel witness officers to give statements.
That puts a stronger onus on uniformed officers than on the general public.
“Most citizens don’t have to cooperate in a criminal investigation if they don’t want to,” said MacDonald.
Subject officers – those who could be criminally charged – can’t be compelled to give statements, because the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protect’s everyone’s right not to aid an investigation against themselves.
Unlike a coroner’s inquest, which makes recommendations but is not concerned with criminal blame, the IIO is focused on whether or not officers’ actions were criminal.
However, many of the cases do not begin with a suspect. They can involve cases where officers used force, but also cases in which someone crashed a car shortly after an interaction with police, or were in medical distress because of drugs or alcohol, or a health issues.
Last year, the IIO investigated 193 cases and recommended charges against officers in six, MacDonald said.
Shootings by police in B.C. remain relatively rare. In the 2019 cases investigated by the IIO, six involved officers shooting someone. Three led to death, three to serious harm.
Car crashes related to police interactions were much more common, with 33 crashes – five of them resulting in a fatality.
Another key recommendation of the Wright inquest was that officers be given more training in empathy.
The impetus for change there came before Wright was shot, with the Braidwood Inquiry, which in 2010 looked into the 2007 death of Robert Dziekanski, who was Tasered by RCMP officers at the Vancouver International Airport.
A crisis intervention and de-escalation course was developed in B.C. after the inquiry, and it has been used with RCMP across the country since 2012. The aim of such programs is to use communication to deal with people in crisis, including those with mental illness.
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