Calgary

Police takedown of woman in stormtrooper costume won't result in criminal charges

An outside force says no criminal charges are warranted in relation to the handcuffing of a woman in a stormtrooper costume outside a Star Wars-themed business in Lethbridge, Alta., last May.

The incident, which went viral internationally, was investigated by an external police force

A woman dressed as a stormtrooper was apprehended in May by police in Lethbridge, Alta., when they believed the gun she had could be real. The actions of those officers were investigated after video of the arrest was posted on social media. (Deiby Corleoni/YouTube)

An outside force says no criminal charges are warranted in relation to the handcuffing of a woman in a stormtrooper costume outside a Star Wars-themed business in Lethbridge, Alta., last May.

But Lethbridge police are still facing criticism for how the initial incident was handled — and some are calling for the full results of the outside investigation to be released.

On May 4 — referred to as Star Wars Day by franchise fans — 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 a 19-year-old employee of a space-themed restaurant nearby, dubbed the Coco Vanilla Galactic Cantina.

Holding a plastic toy gun, the woman was on assignment, waving at pedestrians and suggesting they visit the restaurant to try specials like the Yoda Soda.

That's when police arrived. What transpired was caught on video and went viral, making both national and international news.

WATCH | Police confront the stormtrooper in the excerpt of this video posted on YouTube by Deiby Corleoni:

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

CBC News Calgary

1 year ago
1:05
Lethbridge police investigate themselves over using force 1:05

The restaurant was holding a May the Fourth promotion — that's a pun on the movie franchise's expression, "May the force be with you."

After police arrived, the young woman dropped the toy weapon, but police said she didn't initially comply with their direction to get on the ground.

With weapons drawn, police forced the woman to the ground and removed her helmet. That caused the woman to suffer a bloody nose, bruising and scratching, the woman's boss previously told CBC News.

The woman was handcuffed and later released. No charges were laid. 

A witness on scene captured the interaction, including the woman sobbing. The video went viral and prompted outrage, including from William Shatner, famed as Captain Kirk on Star Trek, who called 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)

On May 8, Lethbridge police announced they would hand over the investigation to the Medicine Hat Police Service. Alberta's police watchdog, the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), later said it would review that investigation.

On Wednesday, Lethbridge police said in a release the investigation, which included a review by ASIRT and the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, had concluded and recommended no criminal charges against the officers. 

No additional information about the investigation was provided, and inquiries from CBC News requesting more information were not immediately returned.

Lethbridge police said a professional misconduct investigation will now proceed under the Police Act and Police Service Regulation.

'A lack of transparency'

Tom Engel, a veteran Edmonton defence lawyer, said the statement from the Lethbridge police service lacks context as to why the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service didn't move forward with criminal prosecution.

"Was there an assault by the officers? Of course there was. They applied force to her, without her consent," Engel said. "That's the definition of an assault. But for it to be criminal assault, it has to be something that was not justified — but the burden is on the police to prove that it was necessary and reasonable."

In Engel's view, there's no way the police could reasonably argue that the level of force used was necessary and reasonable based on the facts that are known.

"You've got the handcuffing — why was it necessary to apply that force, those handcuffs? It's absurd," he said. "They already know, by the time she's even on the ground, they know this is a toy. That makes it unnecessary to apply any force, once they know there's no offence that's been committed."

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

Engel said the incident was compounded by the officers putting the woman in a vehicle, which he said amounted to "a criminal offence of unlawful confinement."

"The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service decision screams out for a very detailed explanation of how they came to that decision," he said.

"I think that most members of the public, without any explanation, are just going to chalk it up to a double standard."

Concern over communication

Bradley Whalen, owner of Coco Vanilla Galactic Cantina, was inside the shop when the incident took place. He went outside and said he watched as the restaurant employee was forced to the ground in her costume.

He said he wasn't surprised with the outcome of the investigation, given how things have unfolded so far.

"It's a shame that they wasted all this time," Whalen said. "Medicine Hat [police] didn't even have the courtesy yesterday to call me and let me know that the findings were going to be released today."

Whalen said there was never much communication between police and the business, adding no one from police had reached out to him to apologize.

"They know what they did was not proper and not right," he said.

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)

Mount Royal University justice professor Kelly Sundberg said now that no criminal charges are pending, the interests and well-being of the young woman involved should come first.

"We all make mistakes, professionally and in life, and I think that these officers have probably learned their lesson through the process," Sundberg said.

"But [they need] to ensure that young woman is OK from that very traumatic incident. If that hasn't happened, that's a separate issue."

Lethbridge police did not immediately respond to a request for comment around whether they had reached out to support the woman involved.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joel joined CBC Calgary in 2019. Reach him by email at joel.dryden@cbc.ca

With files from Rachel Ward and Sarah Rieger.

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