Editorial: What’s legal doesn’t always seem fair

The manslaughter trial of former Thompson RCMP Const. Abram Letkeman, which wrapped up Aug. 19 (apart from sentencing and any possible appeals) with the defendant being acquitted for fatally shooting Steven Campbell nine times following a brief car chase on Nov. 21, 2015, shows the very serious consequences that can sometimes result from bad choices.

In this case, mistakes were made by both Campbell and by Letkeman, who was convicted of one count of criminal negligence causing bodily harm for ramming the vehicle Campbell was driving on an ATV trail south of Princeton Drive just before exiting his police cruiser and attempting a high-risk takedown, only to wind up shooting Campbell to death because the Jeep came toward him and Letkeman feared he was going to be killed.

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Obviously, Campbell should not have made the decision to drive after he had been drinking. When Letkeman first tried to stop him, he should not have attempted to get away. After the police officer collided with his vehicle the first time, he should have decided to stop fleeing. When he was cornered on the ATV trail, he should have stopped driving and allowed Letkeman to arrest him. Campbell paid the ultimate price for his mistakes, what Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Chris Martin called a “tragic result.”

For his part, Letkeman should have never made the decision to try to end the chase by hitting Campbell’s vehicle from behind at the intersection of Caribou Road and Deerwood Drive. Once that failed and Campbell continued to flee, he probably should have decided that pursuing Campbell was creating a greater risk than having a drunk driver on the streets at 2 a.m. did, and abandoned his chase. When Campbell’s Jeep got stuck on the ATV trail, Letkeman should not have driven the police cruiser towards it, resulting in a t-bone collision that broke one passenger’s pelvis and injured her neck. When Campbell backed away following that collision, Letkeman should have stayed in his cruiser, realizing that backup was on the way and that Campbell’s most likely route of escape, back the way they had just come, would lead him directly into the path of responding police units. He should never have got out of his car with his gun drawn and attempted to cross in front of the Jeep, putting himself in a situation where, as Martin put it, “his actions put his life at risk.” From nearly the start of the pursuit, Letkeman made a series of poor policing decisions that the judge referred to as blunders, which culminated in Campbell being shot to death as he drove the Jeep forward and caused Letkeman to believe that his life was in danger.

The fact that Letkeman wouldn’t have been in a position of jeopardy if not for the result of his own decisions, many of which went against RCMP policy and training, did not mean he could no longer use lethal force however. As a police officer, he is entitled to use force in the course of a lawful arrest and in order to protect himself from grievous injury and death. Martin believed his testimony in June that he reasonably felt his life was in danger, and that Campbell’s Jeep had been moving towards him and come close enough to run over his foot.

Two people made bad decisions on the night of Nov. 21, 2015, but at least one of them should have known better. Campbell may not have been thinking clearly as a result of being intoxicated. Letkeman should have been, but evidently was not and showed a willingness to put the safety of the people in the Jeep at risk in order to make an arrest. Depending on how long of a sentence he receives for criminal negligence causing bodily harm (the maximum is 10 years), he could pay a heavy price for his mistakes. But it is nowhere near as steep the price that Campbell paid, for both his own mistakes and for Letkeman’s. The legal right to use lethal force is a significant power to possess. And while we can’t demand perfection from police officers like Letkeman who wield it, we should hope that they will use better judgment than he did on Campbell’s last night alive nearly four years ago.

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