Police pursuits claimed 77 lives over a decade in Canada, study finds

Seventy-seven people died in police pursuits over a 10-year period in Canada, according to a study by an independent public watchdog.

Aerial support greatly improves odds of capturing suspects while lowering risks, says watchdog

Two teens were killed after the vehicle they were in fell from an overpass in Montreal during a police pursuit last year. According to a study by an independent public watchdog, at least 77 people died in police pursuits over a 10-year period in Canada. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Seventy-seven people died in police pursuits over a 10-year period in Canada, according to a study by an independent public watchdog.

The study, released through federal access-to-information law, analyzed 871 pursuits involving the RCMP and other police forces nationwide. It found that officers were injured in seven per cent of the pursuits the researchers examined.

Drivers and passengers in fleeing vehicles were injured in 23 per cent of the pursuits, while innocent parties were injured in 10 per cent of cases.

"The decision to initiate, join, or disengage a pursuit is a calculated and time-sensitive one that front-line police officers make …" the study says. "An officer's discretion could potentially have consequences to their own and public safety." 

Dated September 2021, the previously unpublished study by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP covers the 10-year period ending in 2019 and is based on media reports.

Pursuits that failed to make the news are not included.

The "RCMP recognizes that police pursuits can pose a danger to public and police safety," said Robin Percival, spokesperson for RCMP headquarters in Ottawa.

In 2021, the RCMP revised its Emergency Vehicle Operations policy to stipulate that Mounties can initiate or continue a vehicle pursuit only if they reasonably believe the suspect has committed (or is about to commit) a serious act of violence — and only if failing to immediately arrest the suspect would pose a greater risk to public safety than a pursuit.

The old policy said an RCMP officer could initiate a pursuit when a suspect driver refused to stop for a peace officer and attempted to evade apprehension. The policy did not require officers to pursue drivers simply for attempting to evade arrest and said pursuits should be reconsidered in cases where the driver could be identified and apprehended at another time.

The new policy also requires all frontline RCMP members to successfully complete an updated online course on emergency vehicle operations. In the past, only supervisors were required to take the course.

Each module of the course contains scenario-based learning to provide RCMP officers with real-life examples they may encounter during the course of their duties, Percival said.

RCMP says aircraft use is 'a significant cost'

The study says that aerial pursuits — helicopter, drone, or fixed-wing aircraft — are a safer and more effective option to ground pursuits. They're also costlier.

"One of the primary advantages of the use of aerial support is that it allows police to safely and effectively monitor suspects' movements from a distance as they assist tactical units on the ground, thereby reducing direct interaction between fleeing suspects, pursuing units and the public," says the study.

An RCMP helicopter flies over Parliament Hill. A newly released report says aerial pursuits are a much safer and more effective alternative to ground pursuits, although they cost more. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Of the 114 aerial pursuits analyzed in the study, only three ended without someone being taken into custody. Police engaged in aerial pursuits typically use infrared cameras to track the heat signatures of suspects who flee their vehicles and hide.

Alberta accounted for 38 per cent of those 114 aerial pursuits, while 23 per cent occurred in B.C. and 22 per cent took place in Ontario.

The RCMP was involved in 57 per cent of the aerial pursuits and 52 per cent of spike-belt incidents examined in the study. In 2019, the force employed 26 per cent of the 67,618 police officers in Canada, says Statistics Canada.

Percival said that while airborne pursuits are effective, "aircraft represent a significant cost" and further investments "must be balanced against other priorities."

Among non-RCMP agencies, the Winnipeg Police Service flight operations unit was involved in 101 vehicle "follows/pursuits" in 2020, according to its annual report. In 2020, the Saskatoon Police Service air support unit was instrumental in the arrest of 251 suspects, up 22 per cent from 2019.

Spike belts used in about a quarter of cases: report

The study also found that in almost one-quarter of police pursuits, suspect drivers collided with (or attempted to collide with) police vehicles.

Spike belts were used in 25 per cent of cases — which often involved stolen vehicles — and succeeded in close to two-thirds of those cases. Stolen pickup trucks were the most common vehicle involved in pursuits, and the fleeing suspects were overwhelming male.

Ontario and Alberta each accounted for 24 per cent of the total pursuits involving spike belts. Just over half of all cases in which spike belts were deployed involved the RCMP.

Often, pursuing officers used additional force to apprehend the suspect, such as police dogs, batons, Tasers and firearms.

"Although the use of spike belts has been encouraged as a means of apprehending a suspect, representative data did not demonstrate a significant risk reduction to public and officer safety," the study found.

RCMP officers examine a spike belt in front of a crashed vehicle. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Ontario's Police Services Act has a regulation on police pursuits that requires officers to weigh the severity of the crime — the need to catch the suspect — against the risk to public safety.

Ontario Provincial Police spokesperson Bill Dickson said that initiating a pursuit is an "option of last resort" and is considered "only when other alternatives are unavailable or unsatisfactory."

During a pursuit, he said, officers "must continuously assess whether the risk to public safety in the pursuit outweighs the risk to public safety if the suspect is not immediately apprehended."

OPP officer pleaded guilty to careless driving

All pursuits are monitored by a supervisor, Dickson added. And while the officer involved in the pursuit can discontinue it at any time, the supervising sergeant "has the final decision-making responsibility," he said.

OPP Const. Timothy Groves pleaded guilty to careless driving and was fined $2,500 on Dec. 22, 2020 in Provincial Offences Court in London, Ont., in connection with a police pursuit. The more serious criminal charges — two counts of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing bodily harm, and one count of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle — were withdrawn.

Porsche Clark, then 28, and her daughter Skyla — aged 9 at the time — were seriously injured on July 28, 2019, when the taxi they were in was struck by Groves' police vehicle as he pursued two bank robbery suspects.

Porsche Clark, then 28, and her nine-year-old daughter Skyla were seriously injured on July 28, 2019, when the taxi they were in was struck by a police vehicle pursuing two bank robbery suspects.

Kevin Egan, a personal injury lawyer representing the Clarks, said he believes the OPP's pursuit policy is adequate — as long as officers follow it. 

"It requires a constant evaluation of the risk-reward," he said.

Complicating matters, a police pursuit can overlap multiple police jurisdictions, requiring officers and supervisors from different police services to continuously gauge the risk of continued pursuit.

In the Clarks' case, the high-speed pursuit started with the Sarnia Police Service, was taken up by the provincial police and eventually entered the jurisdiction of the London Police Service.

The statement of claim filed by the Clarks in Ontario's Superior Court of Justice in July 2021 describes a pursuit which reached speeds of at least 180 kmh. The statement said that spike belts were deployed twice during the pursuit — without success — that the suspect vehicle took a run at police and its driver ignored a police officer pointing a gun at him, and that an OPP vehicle collided with another car containing a family, resulting in injuries.

Egan said no defence has been filed in the civil law suit and he expects the matter to be settled out of court. 

The Clarks' statement of claim seeks $13 million in damages.

A high-stakes decision

The claim says Porsche Clark suffered multiple serious injuries, including a broken neck, a collapsed lung, a spinal fracture and a brain injury. The claim says her daughter experienced "internal decapitation, ligamentous separation of her spinal column from her skull base."

Egan said he's still amazed that neither of his clients was killed. He said the fact that Skyla "can now walk on her own and breathe without a tube and can eat is absolutely a miracle."

The police pursuit study concludes there is a lack of "publicly accessible, standardized and comprehensive data collection and reporting" on police pursuits in Canada and calls for more comprehensive studies.

Neil Boyd, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said an officer's decision to pursue a suspect or call it off can be as consequential as the decision to use a gun.

"It doesn't have quite the lethality of a shooting … but it's a very similar kind of decision," he said.

Boyd said that while the study "raises interesting questions," he would like to know more about the individual circumstances of the pursuits cited the study and the appropriateness of police actions.

"It depends what the bad guy did and what the threat was to the community," he said. "We need more detail."

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