Winnipeg officer cleared in shooting of knife-wielding man who killed woman
Officer left with 'few, if any, options for a less lethal use of force,' police watchdog report states
A Winnipeg police officer was justified in shooting a man who was wielding a knife as he moved toward police, and after he had already killed a woman, the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba says.
The officer fired once, hitting the man in the left shoulder.
"An individual threatening with and actually using a dangerous weapon at close range confronted these police officers. [The shooting officer] had a difficult decision to make and split seconds in which to make it," says the final report from the civilian director of the Independent Investigation Unit, which investigates all serious incidents involving police officers in Manitoba.
"In the circumstances, I am satisfied on reasonable grounds that the [officer] acted within his rights and authorities in choosing to fire."
The incident happened nearly three years ago and the IIU concluded its investigation in May 2020, but the final report was delayed from being released to the public while the case against Cody Don Saunders went through the courts.
Police were called about a domestic disturbance on Oct. 18, 2019, to a home on Riverton Avenue, in the city's Elmwood area.
Two officers arrived just before 8 a.m. but there was no response to their knocking so they remained in the area to follow up, and a second call from the house came around 8:15 a.m.
Again no one answered the door, but the officers, concerned about the safety of those inside, opened an unlocked front door and saw a woman's body lying on the floor, the IIU report says. The woman was later identified as Karen Jane Letniak, 48.
The officers entered and called out for anyone else within to exit. Receiving no response, they searched the home and one officer found Saunders standing in a washroom.
Saunders had what appeared to be self-inflicted wounds on his neck and his right hand was hidden from view. The officer asked Saunders to show his hands as the second officer came over.
The command for Saunders to show his hands was repeated but ignored, the report says.
The areas was cramped, with about two metres separating the police officers from Saunders.
The second officer holstered his gun and took out his Taser, and Saunders moved toward the officers. As the officers backed up, Saunder's right hand became visible, showing the knife, the reports says.
When Saunders was just over a metre away from the officers, he raised the knife with the blade pointed toward them, the report says. The Taser was used at the same moment a single gunshot was fired.
"[Saunder's] actions of advancing at police while armed with a knife, left [the shooting officer] with few, if any, options for a less lethal use of force," Tessler wrote in his report.
Saunders dropped to the floor and was disarmed as the officers started giving first aid to the gunshot wound and neck lacerations.
Saunders was taken to hospital in critical condition and eventually arrested and charged when he was released.
Saunders, now 28, was convicted of the second-degree murder of Letniak following a jury trial in December 2021.
The IIU, in its investigation, reviewed officers' notes and reports, audio of 911 calls, police service radio communications, photographs from the scene and forensic identification unit reports.
A medical report on Saunders, who told hospital staff that he used cocaine and crack cocaine at the time of the incident, was also examined.
"In this investigation, the IIU mandate was to determine whether consequences should flow from the actions of the subject officer, in light of all the circumstances and information known to him at that time," Tessler wrote in his report.
"It is my conclusion that the use of potentially lethal force by the subject officer was reasonable, necessary and justified."
- An earlier version of this story, based on information from the IIU report, indicated the woman who was killed was the girlfriend of the suspect. In fact, police earlier said they were responding to a domestic incident, but did not clarify the nature of the relationship. An earlier version of this story also said the victim had been stabbed. In fact, police have not disclosed her cause of death.Sep 20, 2022 4:53 PM CT