Rise in RCMP pursuit collisions prompts policy review

Rise in RCMP pursuit collisions prompts policy review

Ten months after worrying he would lose his life in a police chase, RCMP Sgt. Stephen Browne returned to the quiet suburban street in Airdrie, Alta., just outside Calgary, where he and his partner had ended the pursuit. 

"I received a crushed tibia plateau on my left leg, torn knee cartilage on my left leg as well," he recalled, surveying the stretch of road where he was injured. 

"It hurts when you get run over by a car."

Browne is one of three RCMP officers seriously injured in pursuits across Canada in 2013-2018.

Watch the pursuit that injured Browne:

Data obtained by CBC through an access to information request reveals the number of collisions in that time period has grown, too, in the country and particularly in Alberta. 

Fleeing motorists rammed or damaged 16 RCMP vehicles in Canada in 2013. 

That number rose to 45 last year. In total, 197 vehicles have been struck in the six-year period. A majority of those vehicles, 87, were hit in Alberta. 

The RCMP's national command refused to speak with the CBC about the subject, and said the data in question is a "very small sample size," making it difficult to draw meaningful conclusions without examining "each individual incident." However, the force considers the problem serious enough that they are reviewing their training and policy.

'I wasn't going to win that one'

On Dec. 1, 2018, Browne and his partner spotted a motorist driving erratically while they were on duty.

"We attempted a traffic stop," Browne said, but it did not work.

Dramatic police dash-cam video shows the driver, Skyler Stevens-Rose, speeding away instead. 

Browne and his partner took off after him, eventually joined by a second police car. 

Stevens-Rose got his Subaru stuck on an embankment and stopped.

Thinking the chase over, Browne hopped out of his car and reached for his sidearm, intending to ask Stevens-Rose and his passengers to step out of theirs.

That's when Stevens-Rose reversed, striking both police cruisers, as well as the sergeant, dragging him over a length of pavement before he stopped for good. 

"I tried to back away from the vehicle as best I could," Browne said. "But, time and distance and speed, I wasn't going to win that one." 

He underwent surgery followed by several months of physiotherapy.

Trend difficult to understand 

Nobody CBC News spoke to could explain why there are more collisions now, though they offered some theories about how they happen. 

"Some of these guys think they're cool, some of these guys have a different mindset than you and me,"  said Alain Hepner, a criminal defence attorney in Calgary. 

Watch a driver try to ram his way out of a McDonald's drive-thru in Alberta:

Hepner represented Stevens-Rose in court. His client pleaded guilty, admitted to being high on cocaine and drunk at the time of the event and expressed what Browne has accepted as genuine remorse.

But Hepner said that is not always the case.

"Often it's because there's a ton of drugs in the car, often. Or contraband of some kind. Or guns."

Between 2013-2018, British Columbia's RCMP had the second highest number of vehicles struck, following Alberta.

The two provinces have the largest RCMP contingents in Canada, and, unlike Quebec or Ontario, no provincial police of their own.

Alberta also has few municipal forces, leaving large swaths of territory in the Mounties' hands.

Better data needed, expert says

"We should be concerned about the police officers' safety, the public's safety," said Terry Coleman, an independent public safety consultant.

Coleman had a long career spanning many police forces, including a stint at the head of the Moose Jaw Police Service in Saskatchewan.

Back then, he instituted a policy banning pursuits.

"I got a lot of pushback from police officers," he said. "I said, 'I don't want to go and knock on your family's door and tell them that you died chasing a stolen vehicle.'" 

Sam Martin/CBC

Coleman is not suggesting the RCMP go as far as banning chases, but he wants the Mounties to collect better data about them.

"I would also like to know, if I were going to do the analysis, not just how many there were in total, but how many were called off, and why they were called off. Now the usual answer to that is public safety, but I would like to know more about the circumstances," Coleman said.

Changes coming, Mounties say

The RCMP's national command declined multiple interview requests for this story, saying they had no subject matter experts available. 

But acting Sgt. Caroline Duval provided statements indicating police acknowledge there is an issue and they are working on it. 

"The RCMP has dedicated a project team to review our Emergency Vehicle Operation training and policy," she wrote in an email.

The team has been around since 2017 and includes both traffic and use-of-force experts. 

Duval did not disclose what prompted the team to begin amending the force's pursuit policy or when it decided to do so, but she did write it wants to adopt "a guiding principle for initiating and/or continuing pursuits, rather than listing a series of offences as pursuable or non-pursuable." Non-pursuable offences on the current policy include vehicle theft or violations of provincial regulations and municipal bylaws.

The team also wants to "enhance training for all RCMP officers," she wrote.

As for data collection, Duval said "all incidents that meet the threshold of a police pursuit must be noted in a mandatory reporting form," including pursuits that are called off. But forms are not filled out if an officer never decides to initiate a pursuit in the first place.   

The changes, both to the policy and training procedures, are expected in the coming months. 

For Stephen Browne, more training is a good idea.

But he believes he had few options last December in Airdrie.

"Truly, there's nothing that I can think of that we could have done better to enhance our safety or the public safety, outside of not doing our job and trying to apprehend a dangerous driver," he said. 

Only recently back at work after his traumatic experience, Browne is grateful and considers himself lucky. 

But the 20-year veteran recognizes the job may never be the same again.

"I may have pain or a degree of pain for the rest of my life," he said.