Saskatoon police's high-risk takedown policy questioned at Austin Eaglechief inquest

A coroner's jury in Saskatoon is hearing dramatic testimony today from officers involved in a botched high-risk takedown minutes before Austin Eaglechief died fleeing police.

Unsuccessful takedown prior to Eaglechief's death left cruiser crumpled and officer injured

Austin Eaglechief died in the black truck on the left. (Alicia Bridges/CBC)

It was the crash before the crash.

Jurors at a coroner's inquest in Saskatoon are hearing first-hand details about a botched high-risk takedown that left a police cruiser crumpled and an officer injured.

Minutes later, Austin Eaglechief died when he crashed the stolen truck he was using to flee police.

Eaglechief, 22, led police on a high-speed chase on June 19, 2017. A coroner's inquest is underway to determine what happened and to offer recommendations to prevent similar deaths.

Jurors heard from officers who converged on a cul-de-sac at Clearwater Place in the city's north end. The police plane had tracked a stolen, heavily modified truck to that location.

The officers decided on arrival to execute a high-risk takedown, jurors heard, The objective of such a manoeuvre is to safely get suspects out of a vehicle and into custody.

Cst. Jason Garland said he was the last of three police vehicles to pull into the cul-de-sac. The two other vehicles had loosely bracketed the stolen truck, with Garland pulling up directly behind it. The plane had reported earlier that the suspects had gotten out of the truck.

The takedown fell through, however, when two people got back into the truck before police were fully in position. The driver reversed toward police.

"All I remember is being extremely scared," said Garland.

"I tried to jump over my computer to get to the passenger side. Then I heard a big crash, and gunfire."

The "big crash" turned out to be the truck ramming a second cruiser and pushing it several metres off the street and into a driveway.

Austin Eaglechief died after a high-speed chase with Saskatoon police on June 19, 2017. (Facebook)

Cst. Allisha Stewart was in that cruiser. She was standing next to the open door of her cruiser and made the snap decision to dive back into the car. 

She believes that saved her life.

"I was immediately knocked out. I woke up and the car was still moving ... but it was still in park," she said.

When it came to a stop, she got out and saw a large pool of red on the ground. She initially believed it was from her partner, who she could not immediately see.

It turned out to be engine fluid.

Stewart is still in rehab for her injuries, which include a concussion, severe whiplash and damage to her lower back and elbow. She has undergone multiple surgeries.

Michael Seed, the lawyer for Eaglechief's family, quizzed Garland on whether he heard on the police radio that Eaglechief was evading police. Garland said he only knew that the police plane was tracking a stolen truck.

Garland said there was little discussion about how to execute the high-risk takedown, once the decision was made to do it, because it's in the police manual and officers practise the technique and understand their roles.

"The parked cars in the cul-de-sac made for a less-then-ideal set up," he said.

"But the street will determine the set up."

In the end, though, officers did not get the chance to follow through because the truck took off before they got into position.

The inquest is scheduled to run all week.

About the Author

Dan Zakreski is a reporter for CBC Saskatoon.