It isn't uncommon for an RCMP officer to transport a prisoner on their own in rural Manitoba, but that doesn't mean it's safe, say two organizations that represent Mounties.
The Mounted Police Professional Association of Canada and the National Police Federation are raising concerns over prisoner-transport protocol one day after a prisoner assaulted a Mountie and escaped; hours later he was fatally shot by RCMP.
"He was able to overpower the officer," Const. L.P. Theriault, president of MPPAC.
"We have very little details of what happened, but it just shows the risk that an average officer working front-line on patrol faces everyday — especially an RCMP officer who is most of the time alone."
On Tuesday night, an 18-year-old in custody was being transported from Ashern, Man., to Winnipeg when he assaulted and stole a pistol from the lone Mountie who was transferring him.
The man, identified by family as Bill Saunders, led police on an hours-long manhunt that ended Wednesday morning when RCMP fatally shot him on Lake Manitoba First Nation.
The Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba, which reviews all serious incidents involving police in the province, has taken over the case. Few details have been released, but the IIU confirmed Thursday the RCMP officer transporting Saunders was by himself.
He was injured and treated and was released from hospital.
'Long time' lone Mountie problem
Brian Sauvé said there are "clear safety concerns" based on the fact the officer was alone during the transport of a prisoner, a practice he says has been around for "a long time."
"In a perfect world we would've had a second person in that van to ensure the safety of the prisoner as well as the safety of the members," said Sauvé, managing co-chair of the board of the National Police Federation.
RCMP policy allows a single Mountie to escort and drive a single prisoner.
The same goes for officers with the Ontario Provincial Police.
"I can't go into the specifics of our policies as it's an operational document. However, I can confirm that the policies applies at any given time — day or night," Sgt. Carolle Dionne with OPP wrote in an email.
But Sauvé and Theriault say many municipal police forces have more strict rules for transporting prisoners.
Const. Rob Carver with the Winnipeg police said all such transports in the city require a minimum of two officers.
A Manitoba government spokesperson said in a statement that Sheriff's officers "do not do transports alone" and that at least two are present per transport.
"The only time an officer would be on their own is if their partner had to use the restroom or escort an inmate to the washroom in a secure location," the provincial spokesperson wrote in an email. "At this time, other inmates would remain in the locked compartments of the van."
The IIU has not confirmed whether the original assault occurred while the vehicle was at a stop, nor whether preliminary evidence suggests the prisoner requested the Mountie pull over to let him relieve himself on the side of the highway where the vehicle was stolen.
Often alone in rural areas
Theriault admitted he doesn't know what happened, but he said RCMP officers who are alone during transports are often left with difficult decisions when a prisoner needs to go to the bathroom.
"That officer has two options: either let the prisoner relieve himself in the car, make a mess in the car who's most likely going to have to clean himself, or give the guy a break and let him relieve himself once he's on the side of the road."
Theriault said in other parts of the country, officers aren't allowed to transport prisoners alone at night. He'd like to see the same happen in Manitoba.
Meanwhile Sauvé contends RCMP run into riskier situations because their job often takes them into rural areas with the nearest backup sometimes hundreds of kilometres away. That presents safety issues for responding officers in the event a Mountie calls for help somewhere far afield, he said.
"You have someone driving 100, to 200, to 300 kilometres very quickly through smaller communities, through school zones, through playground zones, through traffic and we're putting the public at risk responding to those emergencies, in addition to the responding police officers' safety, in addition to the police officer who is in distress at the scene," Sauvé said.
RCMP understaffed, association says
RCMP staffing levels are also much lower than what they need to be and that plays a role, he says.
In March of this year, CBC News reported there were 1,063 regular service RCMP members in Manitoba, and just under 86.5 unfilled positions. That translated to an eight per cent vacancy rate.
"There's a conundrum there and a number of issues that need to be addressed simply by the resource levels that we're providing," Sauvé said.