'A game changer': Chief takes us inside police headquarters the night Edmonton was attacked

Police chief Rod Knecht was in the stands at Commonwealth Stadium that Saturday in September when he first learned an officer had been hit by a car on the street outside. Soon he heard about the ISIS flag found at the scene. "That's a bit of a game changer," he said in a year-end interview with CBC News.

Rod Knecht talks about a September night when an officer was stabbed and four pedestrians were run down

Edmonton police Chief Rod Knecht shares the perspective of the police on the night where five people were run over and seriously injured. 3:36

Police chief Rod Knecht was in the stands at Commonwealth Stadium that Saturday in September when he first learned an officer had been hit by a car on the street outside.

He was concerned, but not alarmed.

Twenty minutes later, he was sent another message with more information.

"We had a police officer attacked, and stabbed and he's down," Knecht recalled this week. "We've got a dog out and we're tracking the individual."

Knecht immediately left the stadium.

"As I'm driving, I get a phone call. And I'm told that one of the media outlets is broadcasting there was an ISIS flag on the scene.

"That's a bit of a game changer."

Const. Mike Chernyk's hat was left on the road after he was rammed with a vehicle, then stabbed outside Commonwealth Stadium on Sept. 30, 2017. (Scott Neufeld/CBC News )

In a wide-ranging year-end interview, Knecht talked in detail about a shocking series of events that unfolded on Sept. 30, when Const. Mike Chernyk was stabbed outside a football game and four pedestrians were struck by a U-Haul van.

It took about 45 minutes, that evening, for an officer to confirm the presence of the ISIS flag, Knecht said. He immediately decided to alert the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team.

"That's when I reach out to the INSET team and say, we're having a briefing down here," he recalled. "I think you should be involved in this."

Decision to investigate as terrorist incident

The highest ranking city police officers gathered around a long table in the executive boardroom that night, discussing the attack at Commonwealth Stadium.

Just before midnight, the other shoe dropped.

A white U-Haul cube van was pulled over at a checkstop, and the officer linked the driver to the Commonwealth Stadium attack.

The U-Haul sped off toward downtown Edmonton, where streets were filled with Saturday night bar crowds and football fans.

The sense of alarm rose in the boardroom.

At the time police were chasing it, officers had no idea what was inside the back of the U-Haul cube van. (Zoe Todd/CBC News )

"So the concern is, now this vehicle is heading down into this area," Knecht said. "What's in it? You're thinking the worst. This becomes a guesstimate. What's in the back of that thing? Nothing? Everything.

"When do you stop it, and how do you stop it?"

As events unfolded on the front lines, high-ranking officers couldn't help but think of terrorist events in other cities where vehicles were used as weapons.

"We're seeing some similarities there," Knecht said. "So I guess if it walks like a duck and it talks like a duck, chances are it's looking a lot like a duck.

"The head of INSET is in the room, as well as the senior official with the RCMP."

They reached a decision.

"We're investigating this as a terrorist incident, and we kick it off from there."

'Textbook' takedown

The next day, Knecht finally had a chance to listen to the taped radio conversations of officers involved in the chase and takedown of the U-Haul driver.

He said he couldn't believe how calm the officers sounded.

"I was amazed," he said. "They all deserve extreme credit. And they did it textbook. They did it exactly how they were trained. And where they weren't trained, their experience and their intuition and their professionalism came through in spades.

"They really had their act together. Probably the most challenging of circumstances as a police officer, and yet it was like they were having a conversation over a cup of coffee."

The tape was later leaked online. Knecht said he has no idea how that happened.

But with a smile, he called the calm after that terrifying Saturday night his best memory of 2017.

"The proudest moment I had was, I think, around one o'clock in the afternoon," Knecht said. "I had sat down with Mike Chernyk and his parents. And I had listened to that audio and I had looked at the entirety of the investigation. Nobody got killed. Somebody got seriously injured, but nobody got killed.

"And I said, 'That was a good day.' "

About the Author

Janice Johnston

Janice Johnston is an award-winning journalist in Edmonton who has covered the courts and crime for more than two decades. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @cbcjanjohnston