SHERBROOKE, Que. — An expert told a coroner's inquiry Monday that Quebec provincial police were justified in using lethal force in a 2018 intervention that left a 17-year-old dead.
The testimony was the last heard by the coroner investigating the death of Riley Fairholm, who was killed after Quebec provincial police encountered him in distress, yelling and waving an air pistol early on July 25, 2018.
The entire interaction in the parking lot of an abandoned restaurant in Lac-Brome, Que., lasted just over a minute, with a veteran police officer repeatedly telling Fairholm to drop his weapon before one of the six officers who responded shot the teen in the head.
Bruno Poulin, a use of force consultant with the provincial police academy and a frequent expert at inquests, told coroner Géhane Kamel there were no other alternatives available to police, faced with an armed assailant who was not cornered. Letting him roam was not an option.
He said the use of deadly force was in line with what officers are taught.
"If the gun is pointed at police, police are justified to shoot," Poulin said. "It's a shame, but we don't have a lot of room to manoeuvre when someone points a gun at us."
Among the solutions suggested by Poulin were equipping police officers with a ballistic shield when dealing with gun-related interventions and better educating officers in training at the Nicolet, Que., academy about suicide by police. Earlier Monday, a researcher with Quebec's police academy gave the inquiry an overview of the phenomenon of suicide by police, in which someone seeking to end their life prompts a confrontation with police.
Another expert told the inquiry Monday that typically, the longer an intervention lasts with someone in crisis, the better the chance of a non-violent outcome.
Michael Arruda, a retired Montreal police officer and specialist in crisis interventions, said his training urges officers to prolong the encounter when possible, giving time for backup, non-lethal weapons and other partners to get involved.
“What we know is that if we’re able to stretch out that intervention to 10, 15, 20 minutes, the better chance we have of a peaceful ending,” Arruda said. “Because we’re able to call for backup, the call for intermediate weapons (non-lethal), external partners and we can plan the intervention.”
He added: “That’s de-escalation, it’s about buying time to put everything in place so that when it’s time to intervene, it will be the least amount possible and it’s a peaceful ending.”
But Poulin said in the current case, officers did not have a window in which to use de-escalation techniques. He also said intermediary weapons like a stun gun or spray were not options for someone with a handgun.
"When the threat is a handgun, a deadly force, the reply must be a handgun as well," Poulin said.
As hearings concluded Monday, Fairholm's mother, Tracy Wing, thanked Kamel for helping find answers to some questions that had dogged her since her son's death nearly four years ago. She hopes there is a realization this type of exercise is important for loved ones of people killed by police.
But Wing said she still firmly believes that if authorities had taken the time to talk to her son, the result might have been different. Her son didn't know he had just over a minute before police would shoot, she said.
"But I know that in 61 seconds that Riley was seen and shot, even after hearing all the testimony today, it wasn't enough time," Wing said.
Kamel said her report will likely come sometime in the fall.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2022.
— By Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal.
The Canadian Press