The provincial Special Investigations Unit (SIU) has determined the Hamilton police officers involved in the shooting of Steve Mesic were not criminally responsible for the former steelworker's death.
Mesic, 45, died on June 7 after a confrontation with police just behind his house. After checking himself out of a voluntary mental health care program at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, he was seen wandering on the Lincoln Alexander Parkway near Upper Wentworth Street ramps.
The SIU decision, released on Wednesday afternoon, released almost four months after Mesic's death, details the disturbing and somewhat bizarre occurrences that led to the shooting, which occurred in a grassy area located between the highway and Mesic's backyard. It also suggests that officers were unaware of Mesic's reportedly unstable mental state, that he had attempted to commit suicide while walking on the Linc, and that the home he was attempting to enter on that Friday morning was his own — key pieces of information that could have led to a different outcome.
According to the report, for which the SIU interviewed 22 civilians witnesses and four officers, police were called to the area around 9:15 a.m., where they located Mesic.
After an officer parked his marked cruiser in front of Mesic, he turned and walked away. The officer asked him to come back so he could speak with him, but the former steelworker kept walking away.
The officer got back in his car and pulled up beside Mesic near the Upper Wentworth Street exit, but Mesic still “largely ignored” the officer, the SIU said.
Concerned for Mesic’s wellbeing, the officer followed him on foot.
When a second officer showed up to assist, both officers temporarily lost sight of Mesic.
After hearing “banging sounds," the officers went to investigate and found Mesic trying to pry open the rear sliding door of a townhouse at 1146 Upper Wentworth St. using a garden shovel with a square head.
At the time, the officers did not know Mesic lived there, the SIU said.
As the officers stood in low-lying bush, uncut grass and weeds up to two metres in height, one of them yelled, “What are you doing?” at Mesic, and Mesic began walking toward them in an “aggressive manner," the SIU said.
It was then both officers unholstered their guns.
'Drop the shovel, and get down'
With the shovel in his hand, Mesic tried to climb the fence, before both officers yelled at him to, “"Drop the shovel, and get down,' ” the SIU said.
Mesic got off the fence but began pulling at the bottom of it where there was some clearance and ended up on the same side of the fence as the officers, the SIU said.
“Mesic was holding the shovel with both hands like a baseball bat over his right shoulder,” the SIU said, adding that the distance between Mesic and the closest officer was three to four metres.
'In my view, the subject officers were justified in their use of lethal force in these circumstances.' —Ian Scott, director, Special Investigations Unit of Ontario
The officers yelled at him again to drop the shovel, but Mesic came towards them, the SIU said.
When Mesic was approximately two metres away, both officers shot at him, the SIU said. He collapsed and died soon after.
Forensic analysis concluded that both officers discharged their weapons multiple times, and at least one bullet from each handgun struck Mesic, the SIU said.
“In my view, the subject officers were justified in their use of lethal force in these circumstances,” wrote the SIU’s director Ian Scott, noting that by the time Mesic was on the same side of the fence as the officers, they could not use pepper spray because of the “imminent threat Mr. Mesic represented.”
The officers could not disengage from the situation because of the “rough terrain” and the short distance between themselves and Mesic, he added.
Officers lacked important information: SIU
Though the SIU cleared the police officers involved of any criminal wrongdoing, its report suggests they lacked information about the situation that could have prevented the killing.
“They did not know that earlier that morning, Mr. Mesic walked in front of a bus on the Jolley Cut and was struck by that bus in an apparent attempt to commit suicide,” the SIU said.
“Further, they did not know that he darted out in front of a motor vehicle on the Linc, causing that car to veer to its left to avoid a collision.”
Norm Dorr, the father of Mesic's fiacée Sharon, told CBC Hamilton that the family won't be commenting until Friday, but added the SIU announcement came on his daughter's birthday. She gave birth to a son, Dominic Steve Mesic, who was to be the couple's first child together, on Sept. 24.
"We just have to try to get our heads on straight," Dorr said.
Responding to the SIU decision, Hamilton Police Chief Glenn De Caire released a statement on Wednesday afternoon. He said the police would not be commenting directly on the case, but said the force is committed to answering questions from Mesic's family.
He said the police will conduct a full investigation into Mesic's death, and will participate in mandatory coroner's inquest into the shooting.
“The Hamilton Police Service will work with and assess any recommendation of the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services that will help to improve how we, in policing, serve our community,” De Caire wrote.
Mayor Bob Bratina said his heart goes out to Mesic’s friends and family – especially his fiancée, Sharon Dorr, and her newborn child.
“They lost their loved one under tragic circumstances outlined in the findings released today,” he said in a written statement.
“No one would have wanted to see Mr. Mesic’s life end this way.”
The SIU release notes that the officers did not have Tasers, which might have offered them a non-lethal option.
The Ontario government has recently Taser use for all frontline officers as a less lethal weapon-including for instances where they are dealing with mentally disturbed individuals.
Hamilton police chief Glenn De Caire has asked for close to $1-million to equip and train all frontline officers with Tasers.
In 2012, Hamilton police used Tasers 49 times – an increase of 112.7 per cent over the 22 incidents in 2011. But in 35 of the 49 incidents, it was deployed in “display mode” only, according to a police services board agenda.
Tasers were used 17 times to control “emotionally disturbed” or “mentally “ill” people.