Calgary police chief questioned by commission over fatal shooting of Sudanese immigrant

Members of the Calgary police commission questioned Chief Constable Mark Neufeld Wednesday over the tactics deployed by officers that led to the death of Latjor Tuel on Feb. 19.

Concerns raised about effectiveness of de-escalation techniques used

Chief Mark Neufeld of the Calgary Police Service said he feels his force is "well positioned" to administer culturally sensitive responses. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Members of the Calgary police commission questioned Chief Mark Neufeld Wednesday afternoon over the tactics deployed by officers that led to the death of Latjor Tuel on Feb. 19. 

Coun. Courtney Walcott, who sits on the commission, opened the session by asking about de-escalation efforts used by police in cases like Tuel's, and what training the Calgary Police Service (CPS) has received to ensure their practices are culturally sensitive. 

Tuel was a former child soldier who had immigrated to Calgary from South Sudan, and was said to have been struggling from mental health issues including PTSD at the time of his death. 

Police arrived on scene at 17th Avenue near 44th Street S.E. just after 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 19 in response to calls that Tuel had allegedly assaulted someone with a wooden stick and that he was carrying a knife.

In a video of the incident circulated on social media, Tuel can be seen sitting on a sidewalk while police appear to engage in a dialogue with him from a distance. When Tuel stood up, police fired rubber bullets in an attempt to disarm him, they say. Another officer used a taser on Tuel as he approached them. Police say two officers fired their service weapons after Tuel stabbed a police dog in the neck with the knife.

Tuel was pronounced dead shortly after. 

Neufeld told the commission that attempting to establish rapport, the use of non-lethal service weapons, and canine units are all examples of 'standard' de-escalation techniques. 

"But all of that is predicated on dealing with a lucid individual," said Neufeld. 

Neufeld said he felt the CPS were 'well positioned' to provide culturally appropriate responses in light of the force's diversity advisory board and anti-racism committee, as well as the community work it engages in.

"These situations are far from perfect and are very dynamic when they occur," said Neufeld. 

"Front line police officers get the cards they're dealt, and sometimes their hand is less than ideal."

A memorial of flowers, stuffed animals and candles commemorates the life of Latjor Tuel near the intersection of 17th Avenue and 45th Street S.E. on Feb. 22, 2022. (Ose Irete/CBC)

Commissioner Heather Campbell expressed concerns over whether or not it was appropriate to use a canine unit as a de-escalation tactic given the problematic history of the use of police dogs on non-white subjects. 

"Anti-black canine terror follows a long tradition of ritualistic violence intended to intimidate, suppress and marginalize black people," she said.

Shortly before he was shot, Tuel had an altercation with the service dog on scene, where police say he stabbed the animal. 

Neufeld said canines are used to prevent people from fleeing when they are in an open, public space and that the presence of a police dog can often stabilize a crisis situation. 

Several commissioners also raised the question of the possibility that at least one of the attending officers on the scene was wearing a "thin blue line" patch, a symbol that has been associated with the Blue Lives Matter counter-movement, which began in the United States highlighting the importance of valuing police officers' lives. 

"As a black woman I know that I would be left feeling both unsafe and unserved if the officer who attends the shooting of a member of my community is wearing an insignia that is a direct counter to the black community and the Black Lives Matter movement," said Campbell. 

Neufeld could not confirm whether an image being circulated on social media was a responding officer, but said that the CPS and the commission had had "extensive conversations" around the topic of the thin blue line image and that those would be continuing. 

The question of whether or not Tuel's killing was influenced by the colour of his skin is a question that members of Calgary's South Sudanese community have asked in the wake of his death. 

Campbell pointed out that Tuel's shooting seemed hard to reconcile in light of police response to the recent blockades in Ottawa, which resulted in no fatalities. 

"How is it that we saw for three weeks people who outnumbered the police, who openly assaulted others, who were armed with weapons both visible and concealed, and police were able to bring the demonstration to conclusion without the discharge of a service weapon.

"How do we explain to the public that that approach was used to de-escalate the Ottawa blockaders and was not used with the late Mr. Tuel," Campbell said.

Neufeld said he felt that the two circumstances were too different to compare. 

Commissioner Marilyn North Peigan noted that police are often "the end of the line" in crisis situations, and that Tuel's shooting was emblematic of the lack of preventive care in the city's wider mental health-care system. 

"We have to zoom out and look at the bigger picture and [see] where we are slipping through the gaps as a community," she said.

Commission Chair Shawn Cornett said she trusted that the ongoing independent investigation by ASIRT would provide a better understanding of what happened the day Tuel was killed. 

"More answers are still needed," he said.