2 Alberta RCMP officers charged with criminal negligence in fatal 2018 shooting

Two RCMP officers with the Whitecourt, Alta., detachment are facing charges of criminal negligence causing death after a 31-year-old man was shot and killed at a highway rest stop in 2018.

Clayton Crawford, 31, shot dead at highway rest stop near Whitecourt on July 3, 2018

Susan Hughson, executive director of the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), said Monday that two officers from the Whitecourt RCMP detachment have been charged with criminal negligence in relation to the 2018 shooting death of a 31-year-old man. (Dave Bajer/CBC News)

Two RCMP officers with the Whitecourt, Alta., detachment are facing criminal charges after a 31-year-old man was shot and killed at a highway rest stop in 2018.

Cpl. Randy Stenger and Const. Jessica Brown were arrested Friday and each charged with one count of criminal negligence causing death in relation to the fatal shooting of Clayton Crawford, said Susan Hughson, executive director of the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT).

The charges mark the first time in ASIRT's 11-year history that officers have been charged with criminal offences in a shooting that resulted in a death, Hughson told a news conference in Edmonton on Monday.

"This is a new step for ASIRT — not one we shirk from, but it is setting new ground for ASIRT, for sure," Hughson said.

She said in the vast majority of cases that ASIRT investigates, "it is found that the officers were acting within the lawful execution of their duty and were put in a position where lethal force was unfortunate but appropriate."

Both officers were released on an undertaking with conditions including a prohibition on possessing firearms. They will appear July 14 in provincial court in Whitecourt.

Stenger and Brown have both been suspended with pay, said RCMP Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki.

Stenger has 12 years of service and Brown has been with the RCMP four years, Zablocki told a news conference after acknowledging "the tragic loss of Clayton Crawford."

"There is a great responsibility placed in the hands of police officers," Zablocki said.

"They are called upon to make split-second decisions that can have lasting impacts in often rapidly changing and dynamic situations.Those decisions unfortunately can sometimes result in a tragic loss of life."

He said Stenger and Brown were immediately removed from duty after the shooting but returned to work after going through "a number of steps" allowing them to return to active duty during a pending ASIRT investigation.

Zablocki said the RCMP has "immense respect for the investigations undertaken by ASIRT and the accountability that the process brings to policing. It ensures public trust and confidence remains for policing across Alberta's communities."

Officers fired at vehicle

ASIRT was directed to investigate the shooting on the day that it happened.

The previous day, July 2, 2018, Crawford was in a residence in Valhalla Centre, around 500 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, when unidentified perpetrators attacked the residence and fired on the occupants, Hughson said.

While one occupant was injured during the incident, Crawford was able to flee the area in a "very distinctive vehicle," Hughson said.

As RCMP officers began to investigate, they sought to locate and interview the man as a witness to the events and possibly as the intended victim.

On July 3, 2018, an off-duty RCMP officer observed what he believed to be the vehicle in question parked at the Chickadee Creek rest stop west of Whitecourt, some 300 kilometres from Valhalla Centre, and provided this information to nearby RCMP officers.

Shortly after 12:15 p.m., officers arrived at the location and found the vehicle parked with what appeared to be one occupant asleep in the reclined driver's seat.

The officers approached the vehicle and a confrontation occurred, during which the vehicle began to move.

One officer discharged a service pistol at the vehicle while a second officer discharged a carbine rifle. The vehicle left the rest stop, crossed the highway and went into a ditch a short distance away, Hughson said.

The RCMP Emergency Response Team was called in to clear the scene and found Crawford dead in the driver's seat, having sustained "several gunshot wounds," Hughson said.

Other officers present

Hughson said she reviewed the findings of ASIRT's investigation and determined that the evidence could provide reasonable grounds to believe that a criminal offence or offences had been committed.

The completed investigation was forwarded to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service in August 2019 for an opinion on whether the case met its standard for prosecution.

On May 29, ASIRT received the completed final opinion.

Hughson concluded that the two RCMP officers who discharged their firearms should be charged.

Hughson told Monday's news conference that other RCMP officers were present when Crawford was killed, and there was some video footage of the incident. 

"I want to be very careful about what I can say about the investigation, but I can say that this particular investigation was advanced considerably by the availability of video … from the police vehicles," she said.

Hughson said she expects a fatality inquiry will follow the completion of the criminal prosecution against the RCMP officers.

She said she has spoken with Crawford's family at various points in ASIRT's investigation.

"I told them I would provide them some answers about how their son or father or brother died, and to some extent we had that conversation now," she said.

"Now that the investigation is concluded, they were able to better understand what happened, to ask questions, and to ask what the process will be moving forward.

"They have been very patient and I don't think it would be an understatement to say that they are still very devastated by the loss of Clayton Crawford."

She said someone from the family commented that it doesn't really matter what happens next, because "nothing will bring him back."