Two former RCMP officers in Central Alberta had similar reactions to news of last week’s police shooting of a Red Deer man with a mental illness.
“It shouldn’t have happened,” said former member Don Matheson, now a Lacombe-based advocate for more accountable policing.
“It wouldn’t have happened in my day,” said Buck Buchanan a retired police officer and former Red Deer city councillor.
Buchanan and Matheson don’t know each other and are of different generations: Buchanan retired in 2005 after 28 years as a Mountie, while Matheson in left policing after a decade in the job in 1974, disappointed with the system.
But both former RCMP officers believe the policing culture, in some ways, is changing and they don’t necessarily agree with the direction in which it’s headed.
Matheson and Buchanan feel police officers are much more willing to draw their guns and use them in recent years.
While serving in Red Deer in 1964, Matheson recalled a young perpetrator, surprised during a break-in, panicked and held a gun to his head.
“We managed to talk him down,” he recalled — without any police firearms being drawn. “He was terrified,” recalled Matheson. “He didn’t want to shoot me and I didn’t want to be shot.”
Now, whenever Matheson hears of a fatal standoff between police officers and a mentally ill person, he wonders “what was the hurry?” — and why wasn’t more time taken to talk this person down?
Buchanan said it used to be very rare for police officers to draw their guns. He knew one officer who retired after 40 years in the force without ever pulling his gun out of his holster.
According to Troy Savinkoff, a communications officer for RCMP K-Division in Edmonton, RCMP training has evolved over time along with the nature of policing, but “there has been little change on when an officer can use lethal force to protect themselves and others.”
In Alberta, each one of these cases are investigated by ASIRT (Alberta Serious Incident Response Team) and its final reports are publicly available, Savinkoff noted.
“In addition, the RCMP initiates its own reviews of serious incidents, including procedures and training.”
While an investigation is ongoing, Savinkiff added “I am unable to comment on the specifics of the recent shooting, or on the speculation of others. The independent ASIRT investigation will determine the facts.”
A Deadly Force List, published by the CBC in 2018, documented 461 fatal police encounters between 2000 and 2017, and recorded an increasing average of police shootings over time. (Stats Canada only tracks fatal police shootings if the officer is criminally charged.)
So has something else changed?
Matheson and Buchanan both have a lot of empathy for the difficult job of keeping communities safe and for the people entrusted with doing this. Every day, police officers are counted on to make spit-second decisions — and are pilloried by the public for making wrong decisions and congratulated when they make the right call, said Matheson.
While there has always been a lot of violence in communities, Matheson and Buchanan acknowledge that police are now dealing with more unpredictable suspects, given higher community drug use.
As a result, they sense a growing fear in the RCMP and other police forces, especially with the long series of officer deaths in recent years.
Buchanan also believes there has been more “Americanization” of these forces with more high-power weapons available to officers leading perhaps to more reliance on them.
He noted Canadian officers used to rely on batons and choke holds to subdue suspects. But the latter move has fallen out of favour because occasionally death would result. Comparatively, he feels this is still a safer option.
Both retired officers believe more training is needed for officers in situations involving people with mental illnesses.
Matheson also advocates for a second local PACT (Police and Crisis Team) since Red Deer’s only PACT team — consisting of a social worker, mental health expert and police officer — was busy when the call came in on April 13 that resulted in a 33-year old man being killed.
Savinkoff responded that the Alberta RCMP are generally supportive of PACT teams “and we continue to develop this program as resources become available.”
Buchanan and Matheson have called for more accountability and consistency within the force, so that officers feel supported by superiors, but are still held responsible for wrongdoing.