Hamilton·In Depth

Quinn MacDougall called police for help. They shot him. His family wants answers and reforms

Hamilton police in Quinn Macdougall’s case were not charged, but his family is still looking for answers and reform.

The SIU cleared the officers of any wrongdoing in the death of the 19-year-old

Quinn MacDougall, 19, called Hamilton police in April 2018 over a threat he received on Snapchat. Soon after he was shot to death by the same officers he called to for help. (Keith MacDougall)

The last time Keith MacDougall spoke to his 19-year-old son Quinn MacDougall, he told him to call the Hamilton police over a threat he received on Snapchat. 

But Keith never expected what was to happen to his son after that phone call to police. 

Quinn was fatally shot by police officers in April 2018, after police responded to his 911 calls for help.

The Special Investigations Unit (SIU), Ontario's police watchdog, completed its investigation last year and cleared the officers involved of any wrongdoing. The two police officers who shot Quinn when he was distraught did so within the bounds of the law as he charged at the officers with a knife, the director of the SIU at the time said in the report.  

Quinn's father contests its findings, especially the indication that Quinn had a knife during the shooting. He calls the conclusion to be "a complete miscarriage of justice." 

The question of how police deal with people in crisis — and calls for reforms that reduce the role of police in those cases — have become a significant part of the recent Black Lives Matter protests to defund police that have swept the country.

Quinn's case is one that puts into sharp focus the central question behind that: How can a call to police for help result in the person needing help shot dead?

"They were supposed to be there to protect him. And at the very least, calm him down, talk with him and tell him they would look into it," says Keith.

The Special Investigations Unit cleared the officers involved of any wrongdoing in the shooting death of 19-year-old Quinn MacDougall, who called them for help with a threat he received. (Keith MacDougall)

Quinn did not have a history of mental health issues, according to the family. But Dave Baldwin, Quinn's step-father, remembers him 'in anguish' that morning, even asking his parents to move away.

The SIU report outlines multiple back-and-forth calls with 911, where he was trying to report that a man with a gun was out to get him. 

During one of those calls he was in tears as he was describing a man at a nearby Ford dealership on Upper James Street. 

Baldwin was with Quinn when police were eventually dispatched to their home. 

Shortly after, Baldwin left his step-son who was talking to the officers, and took his dogs to the backyard. Then a few minutes later, he heard five gunshots. 

CBC News' Deadly Force database, analyzed cases of deaths at the hands of police from 2000 until the middle of this year. It found that 68 per cent of the victims in these police encounters either had a mental illness or issues with addiction. 

"It's confusing to me how someone can call for help to the police. And then they end up on the ground [dead]," says Baldwin. 

Conflicting witness testimonies about the knife

Initially police responded to the Ford Dealership, according to the SIU report. Several other units were dispatched shortly after. Police were then sent to Quinn's home.

A marked police cruiser arrived first, followed by an officer who came in plainclothes and an unmarked SUV. 

Quinn was in the driveway of his home with one of the civilian witnesses that spoke to the SIU. 

The report indicates that this witness was a neighbour who lent Quinn a phone to call 911. And it describes him returning that phone to the witness.
This was the scene on Quinn's street on the afternoon he was shot and killed by police in April, 2018. (Dave Ritchie/CBC)

CBC News confirmed that witness was Chris Windsor, who knew the family for many years. He says he saw the entire incident. 

Windsor told CBC News that he did in fact lend his phone, and said at one point Quinn was holding both his own phone and Windsor's phone.

There was a back and forth with the phones, Windsor says, and eventually Quinn ended up giving back the right phone. 

According to Windsor, after the short mix-up, Quinn was holding that dead phone and nothing else.  

The SIU says this knife was recovered at the scene. (Special Investigations Unit)

The report says Quinn accused the plain-clothes officer of being "the guy with the gun" at the dealership.

That's when things quickly escalated.

Windsor described Quinn looking "petrified", as if he were having a "panic attack."

That officer tried to identify who he was by showing his badge. He may also have shown his gun, said the plain-clothes officer in the report. The other officer did try to explain his colleague was not the man, but Quinn starting approaching the SUV. 

At this point more police cruisers were pulling up to the home. 

Another witness said in the report they saw Quinn run toward the car the plain-clothes officer was sitting in. She saw Quinn put his hand on the window and then raised his right hand with a knife. 

The report also included testimony from a father and daughter in a car who both witnessed the incident. The daughter said she saw a knife in his right-hand, while the father said he just saw an object in that same hand. 

The officers fired their Tasers a couple times throughout the encounter, but all were unsuccessful, the report indicates. 

Officers pursued Quinn as he ran down the street. The SIU report says that Quinn stopped with police surrounding him, then approached the officer and positioned a knife at him. 

Keith believes that his son didn't actually have a knife in his right hand, rather, he was holding that cellphone Windsor mentioned. 

He emphasizes that his son was left-hand dominant. So, he is skeptical that a left-handed person would try to lunge a knife at an officer with his non-dominant hand. 
Keith MacDougall says his son was left-hand dominant. He is skeptical that a left-handed person would try to lunge with a knife at an officer using his non-dominant hand. This photo shows Quinn cutting a cake with his left hand. (Keith MacDougall)

In the end, officers fired five shots. An autopsy indicated that Quinn was hit by four of those bullets. 

"I can't imagine the fear in his mind in his last moments of life," says Keith. 

According to the report, as Quinn fell to the ground, so did the knife. The SIU found the weapon at the scene and testing showed it had Quinn's DNA on it. 

Windsor says that he approached Quinn's body after the shooting and doesn't remember seeing a knife on the ground.

Demand for change with police training 

Two years after Quinn's death, Keith still wonders why the police couldn't defuse the situation when someone was in distress. 

Scot Wortley, an associate professor of Criminology at the University of Toronto and a long-time researcher of policing, says that their police departments need more training on methods of de-escalation. 

When victims carry blunt weapons like a knife, officers are trained to bark commands 'to drop the weapon,' according to Wortley's research.  But if victims do not comply with those orders, officers will decide to use force rather than to back off.

"They are trained to stand their ground and that is what can cause these situations to become more deeply emotional and entrenched. And increase the likelihood that force is going to have to be used," says Wortley. 

He clarifies that having mental health professionals or crisis responders called to the scene could make a big difference. 

"If those [community response] units are established, well-funded and widely available when crises emerge, and can respond quickly, I think we might see a significant drop in use of force cases that result in civilian death,"  he says. 

CBC News reached out to the Hamilton Police Service for comment on the case and what form of de-escalation training it uses. But a spokesperson for the department said in an email that it will not be commenting on this case at this time as they anticipate the matter will be proceeding to a Coroner's Inquest. 

During a Hamilton Police Services Board meeting last month, the police chief responded to recent Black Lives Matter protests' calls for change in the city. Chief Eric Girt said he would be open to having other community agencies take on a larger role in mental health and addiction calls. 

He also supported more funding to mental health services and more resources toward crisis intervention training and de-escalation for the force. But, Girt said, the capacity of other agencies needs to grow before police can step back.

The service has taken several pioneering steps in how it addresses crisis response calls in recent years, all of which have been praised for their innovation and officer's integration with other organizations.

The Social Navigator Program sends a paramedic, police officer and coordinator with social services experience  to non-criminal calls about vulnerable people, homelessness, addictions and mental health; the Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST) responds to non-urgent calls with a plainclothes police officer and nurse or social worker; and the Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Team (MCRRT), is an immediate response from a uniform police officer and a health-care worker to life-threatening mental health calls.

Girt has said that ideally the MCRRT would become a 24-hour program.

 
Dave Baldwin, Quinn's step-father, left his step-son, who was talking to the officers, and took his dogs to the backyard. Then a few minutes later, he said he heard five gunshots.  (Keith MacDougall)

Would body cameras help?

Quinn's family is also calling for police services to adopt body cameras as a tool to gather more physical evidence for cases like this. 

However, Wortley warns that although when used properly body cameras could be effective, it could be counterproductive. Police could fail to even turn on these cameras during certain encounters. And even if there is footage, watchdogs might not get access to it. 

Officers are not obligated to even share their notes with watchdogs,"they don't have to provide information that may incriminate them." 

Baldwin says it was heartbreaking to read Quinn's portrayal in the SIU report when it was released. 

 "If you read the SIU report, it looks like Quinn's the perpetrator that had done something wrong. And all he wanted to do was protect his family," says Baldwin.

He says his step-son was trying to "grow-up" - Quinn had a job at the city of Burlington, he had a girlfriend, and he was looking to find a place on his own. 

"Quinn was a typical 19 year old that was trying to find his way. But he wasn't a criminal,"' says Baldwin.

Keith says that if the SIU had charged the officers and gone to trial, it would have been a chance for justice. But he says that police are rarely held accountable. 

The Deadly Force database also found that of the 461 cases from 2000 until 2017, only 18 cases laid criminal charges against an officer. And of those cases only two convictions

From the many SIU cases Wortley analyzed, he found that if charges are laid against officers, they are mostly over sexual abuse not the misuse of force. 

A major criticism of the SIU is that many of its investigators are former police officers, says Wortley. And the concern is that these individuals will not be able to "collect evidence and pass judgement in ways that are totally objective."

SIU spokesperson, Monica Hudon, said in an email that it takes issue with this notion. 

She referred to an Ombudsman report in 2008, which looked into this issue of possible pro-police bias. It found 'no objective evidence' to prove that issue. 

Hudon said that as of early August,  out of 13 lead investigators currently employed, 12 have never worked as police in Ontario. And two positions are currently vacant. 

But the SIU's website indicates that of those police officers, one is actually a retired RCMP officer, another was an officer outside of the country. 

The website also includes that there are now 28 part-time investigators, where  23 of them have a "police background." Ten forensic investigators also come from policing.

Hudon notes that a case's conclusion is solely decided by the unit's director, who cannot be a former police officer. 

"The director's job is not to decide whether the police officer... is innocent or guilty, but rather whether the evidence satisfies the director that there are reasonable grounds to pursue criminal charges," she said.

Still waiting for the coroner's inquest

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the scheduling of a coroner's inquest, leaving the family still waiting for answers. 

Keith hopes that the inquest will determine that his son was murdered. But to also know the names of the subject officers who shot Quinn. 

He says it felt like he was left in the dark during the SIU investigation. So, he hopes to get more answers from the inquest. 

"Had it been just some guy on the street that killed my son, we would know his name," he says. 

Baldwin shares it's important to him and Quinn's mother, Jodie MacDougall, that the inquest will have some recommendations to help prevent another police shooting. 

He hopes that not only the Hamilton police, but police all over Canada will be able to have better training to help de-escalate situations involving a possible mental crisis. 

"What we hope to come out of it is maybe it won't happen again… There are all kinds of things, I think, that could maybe change an outcome," says Baldwin. 

About the Author

Michelle Song is a producer for CBC News based out of Toronto.

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