Editorial: Fatal police shooting a tragedy of errors

When Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Chris Martin told a packed Thompson courtroom Jan. 17 that former RCMP constable Abram Letkeman would serve no time in prison for his conviction of criminal negligence causing bodily harm, some likely responded with relief and others with disbelief.

For the many RCMP officers and friends and family members of the convicted former cop who were in the room, the sentence probably seemed just. Certainly, Letkeman, who apparently dreamed of becoming a police officer and applied and was rejected several times before finally making his way to RCMP Depot in Regina and then on to postings in Alberta and Manitoba, did not get off scot-free, though many of the consequences he suffered as a result of what happened on the night of Nov. 21, 2015 were not of the legal variety. His career as an RCMP officer is over, as the result of a medical discharge granted to him due to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on mainly, if not solely, from what happened the night that he shot Steven Campbell dead after a low-speed car chase that lasted less than five minutes. Between that and the conviction, it is certain that he will never be a police officer again. He must also live with the knowledge that his actions, some of which were clearly mistakes, in the moments leading up to the shooting, resulted in the death of another man who, while not perhaps completely blame-free from a legal perspective, certainly didn’t deserve to die for his mistakes. Letkeman is also the defendant in a pair of civil lawsuits, one launched by Campbell’s family and the other by Lori Flett, who was Campbell's girlfriend at the time of his death and who was in the car the night he was shot, suffering a broken pelvis when Letkeman t-boned what evidence determined was a stationary vehicle. She also suffered further injuries when a fragment of one of at least nine bullets Letkeman fired at Campbell richcheted off something and struck her in the head.

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For her, and for Campbell’s family members who were in the courtroom, as well as for any who were not, the fact that Letkeman was convicted of criminal negligence causing bodily harm is likely meaningless, since he received only three years probation, 240 hours of community service, a $10,000 fine and a one-year driving prohibition for his crime and breaches of RCMP policy, which included attempting to end the pursuit by colliding with the Jeep Campbell was driving at an intersection near the outset of the pursuit, and then the second collision. It was after that that he got out of his police cruiser and attempted to execute a high-risk arrest, which resulted in him putting himself in harm’s way, which led to him shooting Campbell because he said he feared for his life.

The 2015 incident was not the first involving Letkeman that ended up with the people he was pursuing suffering harm. In 2011, while stationed in Sundre, Alberta, he continued a pursuit of a suspected impaired driver after a higher-ranking officer instructed him to stop. The vehicle he was chasing eventually crashed, and the people inside it suffered injuries as a result. Despite this, he was only informally reprimanded and continued to receive positive performance reviews, which didnt even mention the incident, court heard.

Perhaps whoever authored those performance reviews thought they were doing Letkeman a favour by not unduly punishing him for behaviour that seems to have been borne out of a genuine desire to do good, to possibly save other people from enduring the pain he had to when two of his siblings were killed in car accidents four years apart when he was a teenager. In reality, that person may have failed to impress the seriousness of what he had done on Letkeman, who prided himself on doing police work not just as a job, but as a passion. Directly or indirectly, that may have contributed to what happened a little over four years ago in Thompson, when a generally law-abiding man was fatally shot because he was driving while impaired. During sentencing, the judge noted the irony that Letkeman, due to a blind spot in his judgement when it came to impaired drivers, became the cause of what he sought to prevent: avoidable traffic collision injuries and deaths. It is equally ironic that, by not disciplining Letkeman more harshly for the 2011 incident, the RCMP may have encouraged Letkeman, who was in other respects an exemplary officer, to disregard rules and policies and ultimately led to the pointless killing of Campbell and the pain it caused his friends and family, as well as the much-lighter consequences visited upon Letkeman himself.

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