Police watchdog clears Gleichen officer who fatally shot man sitting in parked SUV

Alberta's police watchdog has cleared an officer of any wrongdoing after he shot and killed a man who was sitting in a parked SUV in Gleichen in 2017.

The early morning incident happened on Oct. 19, 2017, in the southern Alberta hamlet about 75 kilometres east of Calgary.

At 3:40 a.m., RCMP officers in two marked police vehicles out on patrol spotted a blue Ford Explorer parked facing northbound in the southbound lane of Haskayne Avenue, the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team stated in an emailed release on Tuesday.

The agency provided a narrative of what happened next.

Police said the SUV was parked in front of a home associated with the local drug trade. A man was in the driver's seat, with his head cocked back "awkwardly" and his mouth wide open. He didn't appear to be conscious or moving.

One of the officers directed a spotlight from their vehicle at the SUV, and the two officers approached on foot, one on either side of the vehicle.

Both officers knocked on the windows — the man didn't wake up but appeared to be breathing. 

This is a person who was clearly in crisis. - Susan Hughson, ASIRT executive director

The officer standing at the driver's side window spotted what appeared to be a firearm between the man's legs, and told the other officer. The second officer went back to his police vehicle, retrieved a light rifle, and returned to the SUV's passenger side.

The driver's side door of the SUV was locked, so the officer on that side tried to break the window with his flashlight, all while holding his service pistol in the other hand.

The flashlight didn't break the window but it did wake the man.

Officers shouted commands identifying themselves as police and telling the man in the SUV that he was under arrest.

The man in the vehicle looked at the officer nearest to him, swore, and moved his hands toward the apparent firearm in his lap. 

Officers shouted commands to show his hands but the man failed to respond and kept reaching for the apparent firearm, prompting the officer on the driver's side to fire his service pistol. 

The incident unfolded within seconds, said Susan Hughson, ASIRT's executive director.

"This is a person who was clearly in crisis. The officers didn't know what was going on with him. We do know he had significant levels of drugs and alcohol in his system. It would be really impossible to say what his true intent was," said Hughson.

"This young man had a family. He was loved … it's important to remember this young man was not just a sum of what happened on this particular date."

ASIRT

Police recovered a homemade shotgun from the man's lap, and the man was removed from the SUV to be examined and treated by EMS, who determined he had died.

Police later identified the man as a 26-year-old resident of Morley, Alta., which is about 60 kilometres west of Calgary. He had a prior criminal history and was prohibited from possessing firearms, ammo and explosives due to a prior criminal conviction — something officers didn't know at the time.

Two shotgun shells, two glass drug pipes, several small bags consistent with drug packaging and unknown white pills were found in the man's pockets.

A toxicology report found alcohol, meth, amphetamine, cocaine and cannabis in the man's system. 

The cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds.

Homemade weapon was inoperable

ASIRT said during its investigation it obtained dispatch records and obtained an expert report on the man's homemade weapon. It was a single-shot, 12-gauge shotgun, made of a metal pipe and wooden stock, with a firing pin. Although it apparently had the components to function as a firearm, the weapon was tested and it was determined the firing pin was too short for a round to be discharged when striking the primer. 

"To be clear, it was inoperable. Given the homemade nature of the firearm, it is unknown if this was the result of wear or whether the firearm had ever been operational. It would have appeared to be a firearm and it would have been impossible for police to know whether it was functioning," ASIRT's release stated.

Witnesses say man desired a shootout with police

ASIRT also interviewed the two officers and several civilian witnesses.

Two witnesses said the man spoke about his impending death, and two witnesses said the man made comments indicating that he would have a shootout with police if he came in contact with officers.

"Having observed the firearm within the vehicle, the officers were lawfully entitled to investigate and seize the weapon," ASIRT's release stated. "The subsequent actions of the man, in persistently reaching for what reasonably appeared to be a firearm … created a situation that reasonably gave rise to a fear of death or grievous bodily harm on the part of the officers."

Hughson said there will be a fatality inquiry process to assess if anything could have been done differently but noted she understood why police felt the need to approach, in case the man had been overdosing.

"The difficulty in this job … I don't think there is a manual you can do to see how you can deal with any situation," she said.

"My job is to look at what did happen and see if it was within a reasonable range of conduct and, in my opinion, it was [reasonable], no matter how tragic the outcome was, and it was tragic."