POLICE USE OF FORCE

RCMP Officer Charged with Manslaughter in 2015 Police Involved Shooting – The View From Down Here

Steven Campbell and Shannon Heck (Sister) (Facebook)

It was just a matter of time I suppose.

On March 2nd, 2017, the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba (IIU) issued a press release indicating they charged RCMP Constable Abram Letkeman with a number of offences in connection with his use of deadly force in Thompson, Manitoba on November 21, 2015.

This is the most serious charge laid against a police officer since the Manitoba IIU launched in June of 2015.

At the time of the shooting the RCMP advised the incident occurred at approximately 2:00 a.m. when an officer attempted to initiate a traffic stop after noticing an erratic driver.

After a brief pursuit, the vehicle was stopped and the officer approached it.  The vehicle then accelerated and struck the officer who discharged his firearm striking the male driver who was subsequently pronounced deceased at the scene.

A female passenger also sustained gunshot wounds.

The deceased was identified as Steven Campbell (39).

The RCMP indicated there were four (4) passengers in the vehicle;

  • an adult female passenger sustained serious injuries and was transferred to hospital (gunshot wounds)
  • a second adult female passenger sustained minor injuries, not related to the firearm discharge, and was treated and released from hospital
  • two remaining passengers did not suffer injuries

The officer sustained minor injuries and was treated and released from hospital.

The IIU was notified and took immediate responsibility for the investigation.

The IIU media release indicates they conducted a thorough and independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the use of deadly force and consulted members of the Manitoba Prosecutions Service who concluded the following charges against Letkeman were warranted;

  • Manslaughter
  • Criminal Negligence Causing Death
  • Reckless Discharge of a Firearm
  • Criminal Negligence Causing Bodily Harm
  • Dangerous Driving Causing Bodily Harm
  • Dangerous Driving

If found guilty, Letkeman could receive a life sentence.

(In cases where a firearm is used a mandatory minimum sentence for manslaughter is four years imprisonment.)

(Why it took 467 days to arrive at this conclusion is a separate issue.)

The IIU release indicates Letkeman was released on bail with conditions to appear in Provincial Court in Thompson, Manitoba on March 31, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.

RCMP “D” Division Commander Scott Kolody indicated Letkeman was suspended with pay pending the results of the criminal charges and an internal investigation.

Kolody confirmed Letkeman is a seven (7) year “veteran” of the RCMP.

Police Insider Analysis

Before we assess the case we have to have a basic understanding of the principles in play.

The Use of Deadly Force

In order to justify the use of deadly force a Canadian police officer must have reasonable grounds to believe the officer, or anyone under the officer’s protection, is in danger of suffering death or grievous bodily harm.

(The authority to use force is outlined in the Criminal Code of Canada under Section #25.)

Deadly Force Threat 

In order for a deadly force threat to exist three specific elements must be present;

  • Weapon
  • Intent
  • Delivery System

(A principle defined in Winnipeg Police Service policy and widely accepted in Law Enforcement circles.)

Weapon

The subject must have a weapon capable of inflicting death or grievous bodily harm.

A weapon can be anything that could be used for such a purpose and could include, but is not limited to, a firearm, knife, edged weapon, steel bar or a baseball bat.  A motor vehicle could also be considered a deadly weapon.

Intent

A person’s behaviour must indicate their intention to use a weapon against a police officer or someone under their protection.

Delivery System

The subject must be capable of using the weapon against the officer.

A person holding a knife standing fifty feet from an officer would not have a delivery system as the distance between the subject and the officer would be too great to pose a deadly force threat.

The same scenario changes dramatically if the subject is holding a firearm at the same distance.

Motor Vehicles

The Winnipeg Police Service has a clearly defined policy that prohibits the discharge of a firearm to immobilize a fleeing vehicle.

The firing of warning shots is strictly prohibited.

Self Imposed Jeopardy

Self-imposed jeopardy is defined as a situation where a police officer’s actions elevates or increases the danger the officer is facing.

The officer’s actions create a situation where they could suffer death or grievous bodily harm.

An officer who creates self-imposed jeopardy may not be justified in using lethal force in such cases.

Example;

A police officer steps off a curb and stands in the path of a speeding stolen vehicle. The officer shoots and kills the driver because he feared he might suffer death or grievous bodily harm, when in reality, the officer could have avoided the danger had he used different tactics or simply stayed on the sidewalk.

The Shooting of Steven Campbell – Justified or Not?

The Charges

The charges laid against Constable Letkeman offer much insight.

It’s obvious the IIU concluded the shooting was not justified and laid a manslaughter charge as a result.

The fact they charged him with dangerous driving offences indicates they arrived at the same conclusion regarding the police pursuit.

Is this charge somewhat of an over-reach by the IIU?

Police officers have a sworn duty to enforce all the laws of the land, including of course, the Highway Traffic Act.

Was Mr. Campbell obeying all the rules of the road as he operated his motor vehicle at 2:00 a.m. on November 21, 2015?

Was the attempted traffic stop unreasonable, un-justifiable and unlawful?

It’s seems odd the officer could get this aspect of a relatively uncomplicated task so wrong.

Having said that, it’s difficult to know the answers without having intimate knowledge of the investigation.

Double Jeopardy

It’s also interesting the IIU went with charges of Manslaughter and Criminal Negligence Causing Death.

Do these charges equate to double jeopardy?

Some might suggest so.

The Ontario Special Investigations Unit (SIU) and Prosecutions Branch took a similar approach in the case against Toronto Police Officer James Forcillo who was charged with Murder and Attempt Murder in shooting death of Sammy Yatim.

How can you be charged with the Attempt Murder of someone who was killed?

Many suggested the approach was unfair and violated Forcillo’s rights.

Ultimately, Forcillo was acquitted of Murder and convicted of the Attempt Murder charge. In hindsight, a clearly brilliant strategy, at least from the prosecutors perspective.

The case is under appeal.

Did the IIU adopt the SIU approach and hedge their bets with the Criminal Negligence Causing Death Charge?

Double jeopardy?

The Shooting

Shooting at or into a moving motor vehicle can be a difficult thing to justify.

The justification becomes harder when the vehicle is full of passengers who have little control over the actions of the driver.

Self imposed jeopardy often becomes a very important consideration when police officers shoot at moving motor vehicles.

On July 28, 2016, Paul O’Neal (18) was shot and killed by Chicago Police following a high-speed pursuit.  The pursuit and aftermath of the shooting was caught on cruiser car dash cams and police officer body cameras.

Body Camera Footage – Paul O’Neal Shooting

In the image above you can see the stolen vehicle speeding towards a stopped police vehicle.  O’Neal drives the stolen vehicle at a high rate of speed narrowly missing the police officer who was standing near the driver’s door.

Police Body Camera – Paul O’Neal Shooting

In this image you can see the passenger officer pointing and discharging his firearm at the suspect vehicle. What you can’t see is his partner standing just on the other side of the speeding vehicle.  This was a very dangerous cross-fire situation.

This could be considered a case of self-imposed jeopardy.

The officers intentionally stopped their police vehicle in the path of the speeding vehicle and intentionally stood in the roadway.

They essentially created the danger and need to use deadly force to stop a deadly force threat that would not have existed had they not used the tactics they employed.

Police Body Camera – Paul O’Neal Shooting

In the O’Neal case the officer continued to fire shots as the vehicle sped away.

Justifying these shots would be difficult as the threat has clearly ceased to exist.

(Note: American Law Enforcement Agencies have different use of force rules, tactics, guidelines, perceptions and, of course, laws.)

Expect forensics to play an extremely important role in the prosecution of Constable Abram Letkeman.

Where was he standing when he fired the fatal shots?

What was the trajectory of the shots?

What was the distance between him and Campbell’s vehicle at the time of the the shots were fired?

Did Letkeman believe he was in danger of suffering death or grievous bodily harm when he discharged his firearm?

Does his belief stand up to both subjective and objective analysis?

Do his injuries support his perception and decision to use lethal force?

Will the charges against him be proven beyond a reasonable doubt?

These questions will be answered at trial.

The Rush to Judgement

Police involved shootings and the use of deadly force can be complicated events.  There are many factors to consider when deciding issues regarding police officer use of deadly force.

It’s also important to recognize we do not have enough information to arrive at an informed opinion regarding Constable Letkeman’s use of force in the shooting death of Steven Campbell.

As such, I urge readers to keep and open mind and avoid the temptation to rush to judgement.

In Canada, all citizens, including police officers, have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Constable Letkeman deserves his day in court just like anybody else.

It will be interesting to see how this one shakes out.

Factoids;

Mia Rabson of the Winnipeg Free Press reports nearly 200 RCMP officers have been criminally charged in the last five years.

RCMP stats put that number at 188.

  • 2016 – 29 – as of October 6, 2016
  • 2015 – 41
  • 2014 – 35
  • 2013 – 44
  • 2012 – 39

There are five (5) known cases in Manitoba since September 2014.


The IIU Media Releases;


IIU Media Release

The Law;

Manslaughter

236 Every person who commits manslaughter is guilty of an indictable offence and liable;

(a) where a firearm is used in the commission of the offence, to imprisonment for life and to a minimum punishment of imprisonment for a term of four years; and
(b) in any other case, to imprisonment for life.


Causing Death by Criminal Negligence

220 Every person who by criminal negligence causes death to another person is guilty of an indictable offence and liable;
(a) where a firearm is used in the commission of the offence, to imprisonment for life and to a minimum punishment of imprisonment for a term of four years; and
(b) in any other case, to imprisonment for life.


Causing Bodily Harm by Criminal Negligence

221 Every one who by criminal negligence causes bodily harm to another person is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.


Discharging Firearm — Recklessness

244.2 (1) Every person commits an offence;
(a) who intentionally discharges a firearm into or at a place, knowing that or being reckless as to whether another person is present in the place; or
(b) who intentionally discharges a firearm while being reckless as to the life or safety of another person.

Punishment

(3) Every person who commits an offence under subsection (1) is guilty of an indictable offence and
(a) if a restricted firearm or prohibited firearm is used in the commission of the offence or if the offence is committed for the benefit of, at the direction of or in association with a criminal organization, is liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than 14 years and to a minimum punishment of imprisonment for a term of five years, in the case of a first offence


Dangerous Operation of Motor Vehicles

249 (1) Every one commits an offence who operates;
(a) a motor vehicle in a manner that is dangerous to the public, having regard to all the circumstances, including the nature, condition and use of the place at which the motor vehicle is being operated and the amount of traffic that at the time is or might reasonably be expected to be at that place;

(2) Every one who commits an offence under subsection (1)
(a) is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years; or
(b) is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.


Dangerous Operation Causing Bodily Harm

(3) Every one who commits an offence under subsection (1) and thereby causes bodily harm to any other person is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.

2 Comments

  1. Mark,

    In your scenario the officer had no idea the subject was armed with a knife, therefore he shouldn’t be criticized for closing the distance.

    In that case I would say no, it was not self-imposed jeopardy.

    You make a very good observation though.

    The fact is, every lethal force situation has its own unique set of circumstances and conditions that have to evaluated on a case by case basis.

    The real problem comes when people doing the evaluating have no experience using force and a very limited understanding of the dynamics of a deadly force encounter.

    Thank you for commenting.

  2. This idea of self-imposed jeopardy seems like an awfully slippery slope depending on how you want to interpret it and how far you want to take it. A police officer has every right to block a roadway, or to stand on a roadway, to signal someone to stop. That it might not be the safest idea at the time, does not absolve the criminal of responsibility for their actions, nor of the authority of the police to defend themselves.

    If a police officer finds themselves threatened, then they have a duty use the least amount of force necessary to mitigate that threat, and that might include running away versus standing their ground and shooting. But you can’t backpedal through an incident and determine that because of some earlier tactical error, the police have lost their ability to defend themselves.

    Let me use an example. A police officer is trying to arrest an uncooperative individual at a distance using verbal commands. It’s not working so the officer leaves a point of cover and closes the distance to use physical control and the individual pulls a knife. At this point, someone could say that the officer made a tactical error by leaving his point of cover and exposing himself to the threat of a knife. So is this a self-imposed jeopardy? Is the officer’s only legal manoeuvre now to accept being stabbed and hope for the best?

    To go back to the Thompson incident, to me the only question is, at the moment he pulled the trigger, was there no other way he could save his life than shooting? If there was an obvious alternative, then he made a mistake. But I don’t see the relevance of how he got into that position.

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