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Editorial: Two Thompson police shootings six years apart took place under very different circumstances

Any police shooting is a tragedy, but not all are equally necessary.
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Manitoba’s police watchdog agency — the Independent Investigation Unit — looks into all serious incidents involving on- and off-duty police officers.

Since the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba was established and took over responsibility for looking into serious incidents involving on- and off-duty police officers in this province in 2015 (previously, officers from another police department, say Brandon’s, would be tasked with investigating such incidents in a community such as Thompson to prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest), there have been two incidents in which a Thompson RCMP officer shot their gun in an effort to defend themselves and/or the public. And though neither of those shootings resulted in the officers involved being convicted of a crime, there are many differences between them, not limited to whether the IIU recommended that criminal charges should be laid or not.

The most recent officer-involved shooting in Thompson occurred last Oct. 25 and it was announced earlier this month that the officer who discharged his firearm would not face any charges because he was taking appropriate action to protect himself from an armed suspect who was not responding to police commands. Prior to that, the last time a Thompson RCMP officer shot someone was in November 2015, when Abram Letkeman, at that time a constable serving in the Thompson detachment, inflicted gunshot wounds on two people after pursuing a suspected drunk driver. Though Letkeman was ultimately found not guilty of criminal negligence causing death, the IIU did recommend that he face charges for his actions that night, which cost one of the people he shot — Steven Campbell — his life and severely altered the life of the other.

Apart from the outcome — the man who was shot last October suffered only a single gunshot wound and lived — the incidents differ in several respects, though they are similar in some.

In both instances, the officers were alone, which always presents more risk, though Letkeman already knew that backup was on the way when he made fateful and disastrous decisions that put him in a position where he felt he needed to shoot to ensure his safety.

In October, however, the officer who fired his gun did not help create the situation in which he found himself. He was in the Eastwood neighbourhood on another matter when he was alerted to the presence of an intoxicated man who was carrying a knife, as numerous witnesses told the IIU. He did his best to avoid being in a situation where he needed to use his weapon, backing away from the man with the knife and instructing him repeatedly to drop his weapon before ultimately making the decision to pull the trigger.

Letkeman, on the other hand, prior to the shooting, made several decisions that were, at best, unwise and at worst, a crime, and ended in tragedy. He attempted a maneuver which RCMP officers are not trained to do, essentially bumping the car Campbell was driving twice in attempts to end a low-speed pursuit and then, once a lengthier and faster pursuit had ended in an off-road area, ramming the vehicle he had been chasing. After that, he got out of his cruiser and crossed in front of the other vehicle, leaving him vulnerable to being hit when it accelerated forward, though the only person who knows if that was an attempt to hit the officer or merely an attempt to flee can never share that information because he was shot multiple times and died at the scene.

Though the judge in Letkeman’s case decided that, regardless of whether he had created the situation that put him in jeopardy, once he was in danger he had the right to use his gun to neutralize the threat, he noted that at numerous points, the officer could have made different decisions that would have altered the course of events. In the shooting that occurred last October, the entire incident unfolded over a matter of seconds. Letkeman had several minutes to rethink what he was doing and reassess the risk the driver he was chasing posed. Last year, the officer was reacting to an unexpected situation.

Any police shooting is a tragedy, particularly when it results in someone’s death, but not all are equally necessary. Last October, an officer was confronted with an unexpected situation and responded the way officers are trained to. It wasn’t the only possible outcome, but it was a reasonable course of action. Seven years ago, another officer disregarded his training at several points and, by doing so, put himself into a dangerous situation. Though his decision to fire his weapon was judged to not be a crime, several actions he took while behind the wheel of a police cruiser were.

This editorial first appeared in the Aug. 19 print edition of the Thompson Citizen.