Saskatchewan RCMP are defending their decision to call off a high-speed pursuit of a stolen vehicle, after the stolen truck was involved in a crash that killed three Edmonton women last week just east of Lloydminster.
Officers from the Maidstone detachment responded early Friday morning after intruders drove two stolen vehicles into Curtis Byford's yard, and took off in a stolen truck.
While police were in Byford's yard, the stolen truck returned. Officers pursued the stolen truck briefly before being told by their supervisor to stand down.
"The vehicle was right there, the cop was right there, it was just beyond frustrating," Byford told CBC.
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Byford said the officer who returned to his yard was professional, but visibly frustrated.
"He was, like, biting his lip, you could see it," said Byford.
Within half an hour, the same two officers were called to the scene of a fatal collision east of Lloydminster, where the stolen truck had collided with an eastbound minivan, killing three of the women inside.
Two women, 35 and 37, were pronounced dead immediately, while a 53-year-old woman later died of her injures. A fourth woman, 32, was airlifted to hospital in critical condition.
"[Officers] are asked to do a job but given no tools," said Byford. "Here's your pen, go be a cop."
Byford is calling for the RCMP to change the force's national policy on high-speed pursuits.
Weighing the risk
Since 2009, RCMP forces across Canada have been instructed not to engage in high-speed chases with stolen vehicles.
Saskatchewan's top RCMP officer said he understands Byford's frustration, but officers must consider the speed and type of vehicle involved, traffic and weather conditions, and what they know about the alleged crime and perpetrator before starting a high-speed pursuit.
"These pursuits can be very high-risk," said Assistant Commissioner Curtis Zablocki. "A stolen vehicle is not worth putting someone's life in jeopardy or at risk."
He said police may chase a stolen vehicle if a firearm is involved, or if there are other extenuating circumstances.
"Perhaps it's a report of an impaired driver," Zablocki said. "Perhaps it's an abduction or an assault, or a situation where somebody's life or personal safety becomes in jeopardy, so we weigh the seriousness of that situation and then the necessity for the immediate apprehension."
Actions must match the alleged crime
"At some point every pursuit becomes too dangerous," explained Ron MacDonald in an interview with CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning.
MacDonald is the director of the Serious Incident Response Team in Halifax. He and his team are independent investigators who look into many accidents involving police in Nova Scotia.
He said relatively minor crimes like stolen vehicles are just not enough for the police to engage in a risky pursuit. In fact, he said, the bar for starting a pursuit is high.
"If you have a situation … where someone is escaping a murder, or escaping a violent robbery, or perhaps there is an indication that they are on their way to commit a very serious offence, obviously you have to weigh that."
The bottom line, MacDonald said, is pretty clear.
"The actions of police shouldn't cause serious bodily injury to someone unless it's designed to protect against serious bodily injury or death."
Pursuit policy 'will get some scrutiny and review': RCMP
"It's a very tough situation for our members," said Zablocki, who said he has spoken with both officers from the Maidstone detachment.
He said the RCMP will review the circumstances around the stolen vehicles and subsequent collision at the national level.
"I'm not saying [the pursuit policy] is going to change but part of our process in ensuring that our policy is current and that it's relevant and meeting the needs of public safety in the province and across the country is to ensure that policy is up to date and it's very relevant," said Zablocki.
"It will get some scrutiny and review," he said.
Byford said since last week's collision, officers have sent him texts, urging him to continue pressing the RCMP to change the rules around high-speed pursuits.
"This is the worst-case scenario," said Byford. "If these [offenders] know they can get away every time, they get away every time."
The RCMP arrested a 26-year-old man near the crash site Friday.
Officers have not yet said whether that man or any others have been charged.