THOMPSON, Man. — A judge says he believes that a northern Manitoba RCMP officer genuinely feared for his life when he repeatedly shot at a drunk driver during an attempted arrest that was full of mistakes.
Chief Justice Chris Martin on Monday acquitted Const. Abram Letkeman, 37, of manslaughter despite a series of poor policing decisions in the lead-up to the 2015 shooting of Steven Campbell, 39, outside Thompson.
“No doubt (Const.) Letkeman bears fault, but except for Mr. Campbell’s driving forward and then leftward, I am satisfied he would not have shot,” Martin said.
Martin also acquitted Letkeman of other shooting-related charges, but did convict him of criminal negligence causing bodily harm in relation to his driving.
The trial heard the officer saw the Jeep early on a November morning as the bars in the small community of about 15,000 people were closing.
A toxicology report showed Campbell had alcohol in his system and was almost 2 1/2 times over the legal limit to drive. It also showed a small amount of cocaine.
Letkeman testified he suspected the driver was impaired and attempted a traffic stop, but after a few moments the Jeep drove away. The officer started to pursue it, but he did not communicate that to his supervisors.
Letkeman testified that he hoped to end the chase by using his police car to bump the back of the Jeep, forcing it to rotate and stop. A use of force expert testified the move was against protocol and training, and was extremely risky.
The Jeep ended up on a trail for all-terrain vehicles, where it lost control and stopped. The trial heard Letkeman’s vehicle then T-boned it.
The officer testified he didn’t wait for backup and walked in front of the Jeep to do a high-risk takedown. He said the Jeep started moving toward him, so he was forced to fire.
Officers found 12 bullet casings at the scene and Campbell was hit at least nine times.
There were four passengers in Campbell’s vehicle. His girlfriend, Lori Flett, was shot and, among other injuries, her pelvis was fractured in the collision.
In his decision, the judge said the officer’s driving decisions were dangerous and unwarranted. Letkeman should have surmised there was a great risk to everyone in the vehicle when he used his police cruiser to ram it, Martin said.
“Virtually nothing was reasonable from the start and each mistake built on the last.”
During closing arguments in June, Crown prosecutor Christian Vanderhooft argued that Letkeman stood in front of the vehicle and fired so that the Jeep couldn’t drive away, not because he was in danger.
Defence lawyers Josh Weinstein and Lisa LaBossiere argued the officer shot his gun because he had to. They warned that convicting Letkeman would have “a chilling effect” on all police.
The judge said the shooting was tragic but proportionate because the Jeep was moving at the officer. He added that a conviction for the shooting “would be imposing a standard of near perfection in a fast and highly chaotic situation.”
Letkeman was suspended with pay after he was charged in March 2017. Manitoba RCMP said his duty status will be reviewed because of the conviction.
Campbell’s mother, Shirley Huber, said she was disappointed there are no repercussions for the shooting but is encouraged by the driving conviction.
Huber said her son shouldn’t have been behind the wheel if he was intoxicated, but the decision wasn’t worth his life.
She also said Campbell’s death shows how important it is for police to have dashboard and body cameras, especially in northern communities.
“There has to be a way to document what really happens on those stops and maybe it won’t happen again,” Huber said in a message online.
“Maybe my son would still be alive.”