Police pursuit of suspected Edmonton attacker questioned

Edmonton police Chief Rod Knecht has defended the decisions made by his officers in the pursuit of Abdulahi Sharif Saturday night. But a Canadian expert wonders if police ever should have let the chase get that far.

‘Was that decision by the supervisor delayed?’ expert asks

A rented U-Haul truck is tipped over, marking the end of a police pursuit last Saturday night. (CBC News )

Just a few hours after a high-speed police chase that saw a U-Haul truck tear through the heart of downtown Edmonton, injuring four pedestrians, police Chief Rod Knecht defended the actions of his officers.

"I would suggest ... the seriousness of the offence or the believed offence is why the chase was not called off," Knecht said.

He referred to the attack on Const. Mike Chernyk earlier Saturday evening. Chernyk was hit by a car, then repeatedly stabbed. The same suspect allegedly fled a police checkpoint along Wayne Gretzky Drive in the U-Haul truck.

The next day, the chief continued to defend the police pursuit.

"Because of the serious nature of the attack on the police officer a few hours earlier, a senior supervisor directed that the vehicle was to be pursued and stopped," Knecht said.

"This is always a difficult decision to make. To chase a vehicle or to let it go."

Former B.C. Solicitor General and former West Vancouver police Chief Kash Heed thinks that "difficult decision" might have been a mistake.

CBC News asked Heed to listen to the recording of the chase taken from the police radios that surfaced online this week.

"Given the fact that it's a U-Haul truck doing excessive speeds, running red lights, the pressure would be on the supervisor to stop the pursuit," Heed said.
Former B.C. Solicitor General and former West Vancouver police Chief Kash Heed has concerns about Edmonton police pursuit after listening to audio from police radio. (CBC)

In normal circumstances, he said, the police supervisor would likely call off the pursuit.

But the injured police officer was what he called "the trump card."

"The supervisor's in a difficult situation, a bit of a quandary here," he said.

"We've had an officer that's been harmed. Do we discontinue the pursuit based on the dangers that are created to the public as a result of that, or do we continue to try and apprehend this individual with the thought that he may cause harm to others based on his behaviour?"

The current Edmonton Police Criminal Flight Event (CFE) policy states, "Public and officer safety must be the primary concern when members enter into, or take any action during, a CFE."

"Members must continually assess the safety risk created or augmented by their actions related to a CFE against safety risks created by not apprehending the subject," according to the Nov. 2016 directive. 

"Members must cease any CFE action that poses a greater or an unreasonable risk to public and officer safety."

Expert wonders why truck not stopped sooner

The police chase with the U-Haul truck began on Wayne Gretzky Drive at 112th Avenue.

Very quickly the police in pursuit realized the truck was likely headed downtown. According to the audio recording, traffic conditions leading to the core were light. There was no mention made of pedestrians.

More than six kilometres later, an officer said, "We're coming up to a decision-maker here ... coming up to Jasper Ave. He's just going left of centre. Going through a red here."

"Here's where it gets a little bit interesting," Heed said, after listening to the entire tape twice. He said he was involved in many pursuits as a pursuer and a supervisor. He also reviewed pursuits after the fact during his law enforcement career.

"This is where it becomes very concerning," Heed said.

"He says the suspect vehicle is running through red lights. He identifies almost a collision when the vehicle's doing 70 [km/h]. Then he identifies the fact that they're entering downtown and it's heavy traffic."

But still the chase continued into the heart of downtown. Air 1 was on the way. The possibility of using a spike belt was raised.

The dynamic changed in a heartbeat when two pedestrians were hit in an alley off 109th Street.

The tactical unit was instructed to make "direct vehicle contact" to end the chase as quickly as possible.

The order became more urgent after two more pedestrians were run down.

"Use all means necessary to stop that vehicle and end this crim [criminal] flight," the command officer said.

Heed questioned the delayed order from the supervisor.

"Should that direction have been given to the units before they entered the downtown district where they had heavy pedestrian traffic?" Heed wondered.

"Should the utilization of the tactical vehicle takedown be before the individual entered the downtown area of Edmonton?"

Edmonton chief calls police actions 'textbook'

Heed acknowledged he was playing the position of armchair quarterback in offering his comments. But he wondered if the injuries to four unwitting pedestrians could have been avoided if only police had somehow stopped the suspect from reaching downtown Edmonton.

Edmonton police Chief Rod Knecht defended the actions of his officers in a police pursuit as 'textbook'. (CBC News )

Knecht granted an exclusive media interview to Global News Edmonton on Tuesday.

According to their report, he described the police decisions during the case as "textbook." 

He said, "From my perspective as a senior executive, that's exactly how I would've wanted them to handle it."

Heed observed, "He's in a position where he has to support his membership."

There was no response to a CBC News request Wednesday for an interview with Knecht.

Abdulahi Hasan Sharif, 30, is charged with five counts of attempted murder, four counts of criminal flight causing bodily harm, and one count each of dangerous driving and possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose.


Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston is an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who has covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca.