British Columbia

Crash that killed 2 teens prompts questions about police pursuits

A crash on the Burnaby-New Westminster border last week that killed two teens has reignited the debate and discussion around police pursuits. 

IIO says it's investigating whether transit police chased the suspect vehicle

A few bouquets lie near a pole next to a street.
A memorial is pictured near 10th Avenue and Sixth Street on the Burnaby-New Westminster border after a crash that left two teens dead. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A crash on the Burnaby-New Westminster border last week that killed two teens has reignited the debate and discussion around police pursuits. 

Officials are still investigating why the suspects in the crash allegedly sped away from a traffic stop and whether they were chased by police, but the tragedy has nonetheless raised questions about when and if police pursuits are justifiable.

The two occupants in the vehicle that allegedly fled the traffic stop — a male driver and female passenger — were arrested at the scene. They have been released from custody and are scheduled to appear in Vancouver Provincial Court on Nov. 29.

Transit Police have recommended charging them with dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death and flight from police, but charges have not yet been sworn, according to a spokesperson for the force.

The collision took the lives of two teenagers who were driving home from soccer practice; Samir Olyad Suleiman Ali, 18, and Yasbrat Habtamu, 17, died in hospital shortly after the crash on Tuesday night.

Metro Vancouver Transit Police, which has policing powers like other municipal police forces, was overseeing the traffic stop.

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C., which reviews all police actions resulting in death or serious harm, is investigating whether police pursued the fleeing vehicle, said Ronald MacDonald, the IIO's chief civilian director.

"That, of course, is one of the very important things that we're looking at," MacDonald said. "So one of the things we consider is if there was a pursuit, was it necessary? Was it appropriate? Did it follow appropriate law and guidelines?"

Typically a police pursuit occurs when a suspect has committed or is about to commit a serious offence and not arresting them immediately would pose a greater risk to the public than a pursuit.

Two crashed cars sit behind a police line on a wide street.
Two people are dead after the car they were driving collided with a vehicle fleeing Transit Police on July 26, 2022. (Shane MacKichan)

Kash Heed, a former police chief who briefly served as B.C.'s solicitor general, says officers need to ask themselves whether the pursuit is worth the risk. 

"Was that criminal offence an indictable offence and one to the effect where you need to arrest that individual immediately to stop his or her action from continuing?" he said. 

Heed says prior to a pursuit officers need to consider if there is another way to apprehend a suspect at the time or at a later time.

"For example, if you have the licence plate, if you have [a] visual, if you have some type of video, whether it's from your dashcam or something like that," Heed said.

In a statement, B.C.'s Ministry of Public Safety said police agencies must set operational policies regarding police pursuits, which include abiding by the Emergency Vehicle Driving Regulation and setting a threshold for initiating pursuits.

Heed says some jurisdictions have prohibited pursuits, a practice he opposes. He believes the policies in place are adequate if they are enforced and officers follow them. 

The cost of police pursuits

A study published last year by an independent public watchdog found 77 people died in police pursuits over a 10-year period in Canada.

The study analyzed 871 pursuits involving the RCMP and other police forces nationwide. It found that officers were injured in seven per cent of the pursuits the researchers examined.

Drivers and passengers in fleeing vehicles were injured in 23 per cent of the pursuits, while innocent parties were injured in 10 per cent of cases.

The study said that aerial pursuits — helicopter, drone, or fixed-wing aircraft — are more effective and less risky, but are also costlier.

Detectives with the Independent Investigations Office are shown at the Vancouver scene of a police shooting in April. The IIO is investigating last week's crash and the events that led up to it. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Chrissy Burbank's daughter was killed in 2000 after a suspect in a stolen car being chased by the RCMP smashed into her vehicle.

Burbank said police pursuits should only occur in rare circumstances, such as child abductions and other serious crimes. 

"People are going to work, enjoying life, going to school and it's gone in a blink of an eye," she said. 

With files from Michelle Gomez and Larry Pynn

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