Courage during a charged moment

Just because the IIO is in town, don't discount the pressures the cop was under.

A Cranbrook RCMP officer is being investigated by a new civilian watchdog over this week’s shooting incident.

But it’s important we don’t assume that because he is being investigated, he has done something wrong.

Here’s what we know about the incident: a Creston man said he pulled over two hitchhikers Tuesday night and was soon after violently assaulted by the male suspect, who pepper-sprayed him and pushed him out of the vehicle. RCMP began searching for the stolen vehicle, and about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night a Cranbrook officer saw the SUV and tried to pull it over. Instead, the driver took off and the RCMP officer gave chase.

The pursuit ended on the outskirts of Cranbrook at the end of a rural driveway. The RCMP said the officer discharged his weapon, and the suspect was shot with non-life-threatening injuries. The young female passenger and the police officer were unharmed.

Now, we’ll backtrack a month to September 10, when the B.C. government set up the Independent Investigations Office (IIO), an organization charged with examining police incidents where a member of the public has died or suffered serious harm.

The IIO was created in response to two high-profile police-related deaths: Robert Dziekanski died after being stunned with an RCMP taser at Vancouver airport, and Frank Paul died in an alley after Vancouver police released him from their cells.

When Cranbrook’s police officer shot the carjacking suspect, his commanding officers called the IIO. They didn’t have a choice: the IIO’s mandate is to investigate whenever the police are present and somebody is seriously hurt or killed. We won’t know until the IIO investigation is complete whether the police officer was above reproach, or whether he made a mistake.

But I had a glimpse of the officer’s actions on Tuesday night, and personally, I think he displayed incredible bravery.

My home is close to the scene of the Cranbrook shooting. There is nothing but empty land between my bedroom window and where it occurred. On Tuesday night at about 10:30 p.m., my husband and I heard a lone police siren, and I suggested that someone with summer tires on could have slipped in the snow. No sooner had I finished saying it, than we heard rapid gun shots: five or six, seemingly from one handgun. My husband rushed to the back door; I looked out the bedroom window. I saw flashing lights from one vehicle; he cracked the door and heard the officer radioing for help. “Shots fired!” we made out.

For the next five minutes, I think, that police officer was on his own. We could hear shouting from two males and screaming from a female, but we were too far way to make out much. We thought we heard, “Stay where you are!” and “Put your hands where I can see them,” but later I questioned whether I really did hear that, or whether I just heard what I expected to hear.

The most distinct feeling I had as we shivered at an open window, staring into the dark, listening to the exchange, was terror for the police officer. He was on his own, on a deserted road, facing a suspect who had allegedly violently assaulted someone just hours before. I know he would have been trained for situations such as this, but that training was the only advantage he had over the suspect.

I understand why civilian investigators are necessary at this time in the RCMP’s history. It is important that British Columbians have trust in their RCMP; it is equally important that RCMP officers are able to hold their heads high, knowing they have done the best job possible to protect the public.

But it is equally important that we understand the RCMP are submitting themselves to this kind of scrutiny, not because they are not doing a good enough job, but to prove that they are.

We are dangerously close to creating a culture where we persecute the very people responsible for keeping us safe, and risking their own lives to do it.

These men and women have families at home: partners and children and parents who send their loved one to work each day, worrying they could be faced with life-threatening situations in the pursuit of public safety.

How must it feel to come to grips with that reality, knowing the amount of public scrutiny and criticism the RCMP face?

Yes, a handful of police in B.C.’s recent history have acted poorly. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The IIO’s investigation of this week’s shooting incident is still ongoing, and there is a chance the police officer involved made an error of judgement in that charged moment when his own life was in danger.

But until the IIO’s recommendation is made, can we agree that the RCMP officer acted with bravery, facing an allegedly violent suspect on his own without backup, which was several crucial minutes away?

Instead of assuming he did something wrong, can we please support our RCMP enough to believe he did what he had to do, at least until we are told otherwise?

Myself, I want to thank that RCMP officer. If he hadn’t taken that suspect into custody right then, the man could have been knocking on my front door.