Lethbridge stormtrooper takedown now to be investigated by external police force

Lethbridge police are being investigated by an outside force after handcuffing a woman in a stormtrooper costume outside a Star Wars-themed business earlier this week. But still the force faces accusations that not enough is being done to investigate what happened.

Business owner, policing critic say higher level probe needed of Lethbridge police

Lethbridge police responded to 911 calls regarding an individual in a Star Wars costume carrying a weapon.

3 years ago
Duration 1:05
Lethbridge police investigate themselves over using force

Lethbridge police are being investigated by an outside force after handcuffing a woman in a stormtrooper costume outside a Star Wars-themed business earlier this week.

But still the Lethbridge Police Service faces accusations that not enough is being done to investigate what happened.

On May 4, the Lethbridge police officers responded to two 911 calls reporting a person in a Star Wars stormtrooper costume was carrying a firearm on 13th Street North in the southern Alberta city.

Inside the costume was an employee of a nearby space-themed restaurant, the Coco Vanilla Galactic Cantina.

The 19-year-old was carrying a plastic toy gun for her assignment of waving at people and encouraging them to visit the establishment for themed specials, like Yoda Soda.

The business was holding a May the fourth promotion, a reference to the Star Wars day that's a pun on the movie franchise's expression "May the force be with you."

On Friday, Lethbridge police announced they were handing over an internal service investigation to be handled by the nearby Medicine Hat Police Service.

"LPS is committed to ensuring transparency in this matter and once the independent investigation has been completed and reviewed, a public update will be provided."

Plastic gun, boss present

The takedown gained notoriety this week after a witness caught the interaction — including the woman sobbing — on a video that went viral and prompted outrage from fans of the movie franchise.

William Shatner, famed as Captain Kirk on Star Trek, weighed in to call for an investigation.

"Rifles drawn for a plastic toy Cosplayer? Didn't comply right away? Are you blind Chief? Watch the video to see how quickly she complied," the actor said on Twitter. "This cannot be covered up."

Star Trek actor William Shatner weighed in on the altercation. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

Police had said that the woman did not comply immediately with police directions, and that she suffered minor injuries.

Her boss, Bradley Whalen, was inside the shop Monday when he heard a commotion. He went outside and said he watched as she was forced to the ground in her costume.

An officer, he said, removed her helmet, causing a bloody nose, bruising and scratches.

"I had no idea what to even think," Whalen told CBC News on Friday. "I just started yelling to them to say, 'it's just a costume, it's just a plastic gun.' It was just totally surreal."

Whalen said he saw an officer kick the plastic gun, which he believed should have made it obvious to police that it was not a real firearm.

'They had to stand down'

The fact that police continued to respond with weapons drawn, and eventually handcuffed her, has a policing expert and critic calling for higher level review.

Tom Engel, a veteran Edmonton defence lawyer, said that he believes the police officers' actions on the video warranted an investigation by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), which examines allegations of serious or sensitive police misconduct, and serious injury or death in encounters involving police.

"As soon as they knew that this was a toy Star Wars blaster, they had to stand down but they didn't," Engel said.

Tom Engel, chair of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association policing committee, says unanswered questions remain about the investigation into the incident. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Instead, he noted, police continued to keep their weapons drawn and moved ahead with restraining her. Engel said those actions could amount to criminal firearms and confinement offences.

"Firearms offences are serious by their very nature and it doesn't matter if it's a police officer or a non-police officer who's committing the offence," Engel said. "So I think it's just obvious that it triggers the ASIRT jurisdiction.

'Out of scope' for ASIRT

However, ASIRT will not be investigating, according to Lethbridge police. In a statement issued Friday, Chief Scott Woods said he notified the Alberta director of law enforcement of the incident on May 5.

But he said the police watchdog determined that the incident was "out of scope" for ASIRT. So instead, Woods called in police in nearby Medicine Hat to review his officers' actions.

The side of a Lethbridge Regional Police car.
Lethbridge police handcuffed an employee of a local eatery on Monday during a Star Wars promotion. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Engel said he would be contacting the Alberta director of law enforcement to formally request an ASIRT investigation, through his role as chair of the policing committee for Alberta's Criminal Trial Lawyers Association.

Bill Sweeney, director of law enforcement, told CBC News that he would review Engel's submissions to see if he will need to call in ASIRT after all.

CBC asked Lethbridge Police Service to respond but spokesperson Kristen Harding said the force would not make any comment until the Medicine Hat investigation had concluded.

'Some common sense'

Mount Royal University justice professor Kelly Sundberg said he thought the Medicine Hat investigation was an appropriate decision, and that ASIRT may be too overwhelmed with its existing workload to take this one on.

"I'm looking forward to see that investigation and hearing what comes out," Sundberg said. 

He said that having watched the video, it was clear that "some common sense could have been exercised a bit more."

Some people on social media have said police reacted responsibly, given that only weeks ago, a gunman wearing a fake RCMP uniform killed 22 people in Nova Scotia.

That example was like comparing "grapes to watermelons," Sundberg said. He added that the evidence on the scene, from the Star Wars music playing to the restaurant owner telling police the gun was a toy, should have halted the response quickly.

"She was taken down at gunpoint," Sundberg said. "Shotguns and handguns, and there's one officer with a carbine. She did drop the gun right away. She's in a costume."

Owner looks at formal complaint, lawsuit

Whalen said he has spoken to multiple law firms about filing a formal complaint under the Police Act and eventually launching a lawsuit. His employee, he said, has struggled to sleep since the takedown, and hasn't been able to work. 

"Having guns pointed at you is a traumatic experience, I can imagine," he said. "The emotional side of it and the mental health side of it, it's going to take some time."

The themed shop had one of its employees dress up as a stormtrooper from Star Wars to encourage customers to get takeout food. (Coco Vanilla Galactic Cantina/Facebook)

Whalen said he is holding off on legal action until the Medicine Hat investigation is complete to allow officials to work unimpeded. He said he intends to ask the force to save all body cam footage and other evidence for the potential complaint he may file.

"These officers are put in a tremendous position of authority and they have to be held accountable for what happened," Whalen said. "And if it means that they did something inappropriate, they have to be held accountable for that as well."

No deadline has been set for the Medicine Hat investigation. Whalen said he is scheduled to be interviewed Monday.


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