RCMP probe clears force for its conduct after Colten Boushie shooting
Explanations that police have offered don't stand up to scrutiny, according to family's lawyer
The RCMP has exonerated itself for its actions in the hours after Colten Boushie was killed on a Saskatchewan farm last year, a case that inflamed racial tensions and led to questions about how the force handles investigations involving Indigenous people.
Mr. Boushie was killed by a gunshot wound to the back of the head in August, 2016, after the car in which he was a passenger drove to Gerald Stanley's farm. Mr. Stanley's second-degree murder trial is slated to begin early next year.
Mr. Boushie's family alleged they were treated insensitively when they were notified of his death, and filed a formal complaint in December, 2016.
The RCMP assigned a senior investigator to produce a report, which was summarized in a letter delivered to the family last week and obtained by The Globe and Mail.
The explanations the RCMP has offered don't stand up to scrutiny, according to the family's lawyer. Mr. Boushie's uncle, Alvin Baptiste, calls it a whitewash.
"I disagree with this investigation totally. I think it's bogus, it's a cover-up," Mr. Baptiste said. "The RCMP has done something wrong and they're trying to cover themselves. When it comes to First Nations people, we're treated like third-class citizens."
The investigation was conducted by a senior RCMP officer from outside the local detachment, Inspector Teddy Munro, who is himself Indigenous, Mr. Baptiste said. The official response to the family was signed by Superintendent Mike Gibbs.
On the night Mr. Boushie died, several RCMP vehicles were dispatched to his mother's home on the Red Pheasant First Nation near Biggar, Sask. Mr. Boushie's mother, Debbie Baptiste, said she was sitting in her living room around 10 p.m. when police vehicles with lights flashing drove up at speed, cut across the grass and encircled the house. The family said that was an unusual and disrespectful way to notify Ms. Baptiste of her son's death.
According to the report, the RCMP was faced with a "unique" situation. They believed they needed to simultaneously perform a next-of-kin notification and a search of the family home. Police say they believed that a witness to the homicide might be inside and might be armed. They sent seven officers to Ms. Baptiste's home "for officer and public safety."
Shortly after telling Mr. Boushie's mother and brothers that Mr. Boushie was dead, officers started searching the house. They looked through every room with flashlights, startling Ms. Baptiste's sleeping grandchildren and making the family feel, in the midst of their grief, as though they had done something wrong.
Police are not allowed to search a home without a warrant or without the informed consent of the occupants. The family alleged that the search was illegal and insensitive. They said a white family would not have been treated that way.
The RCMP officers involved told the investigator they obtained consent before searching. According to the police account, Ms. Baptiste and one of her sons were still on the floor, where they'd been crying, when Corporal Jason Olney asked if he could "take a quick look around to see if anybody else was in the residence." Cpl. Olney said that one of Ms. Baptiste's sons gave him permission to search, an account backed up by a second RCMP officer. But he could not say which of Ms. Baptiste's two sons, William Boushie and Jace Baptiste, gave him the okay, "as he gets them mixed up," the report said.
"In this incident there was no definitive evidence other than the word of the witnesses and the police," Supt. Gibbs's letter states, in reference to the search. "Based on the difference in the recollection of events by witnesses and that of the officers, I am unable to support your allegation."
Chris Murphy, a Toronto lawyer who represents Mr. Boushie's family, said even if the RCMP did seek permission, Mr. Boushie's relatives were not in a position to give informed consent.
"Imagine, your son has been murdered and you're literally on the ground in agony, and the police are searching through the rooms in which your grandchildren are sleeping," Mr. Murphy said. "In my opinion, that was not lawful conduct."
The police said the search of the home was necessary because they were looking for someone who had "fled the homicide investigation." Mr. Murphy said the choice of words is notable. They are referring to a witness who ran for his life after his friend was shot and killed, he said.
The police said they had information that this witness, who they believed might have been armed, had been dropped at a home that "matched" the description of Ms. Baptiste's trailer, although they do not say how they arrived at those conclusions. There are no street names on Red Pheasant and more than 160 private dwellings.
Mr. Murphy said the RCMP account doesn't stand up to scrutiny. If the RCMP believed that an armed person was inside Ms. Baptiste's home, why would they first perform the death notification, then spend time milling around before searching for someone who might have a gun, Mr. Murphy asked. Considering the risk to officers, it seems an inexplicable choice, he said.
"This would not happen in any policing universe," Mr. Murphy said. "I don't believe the police when they say they had reason to believe there was an armed person in the residence, because if they believed that, their conduct would have been different. It's being used after the fact to justify the obviously insensitive manner in which they notified this woman her son was dead."
Ms. Baptiste also alleged that the RCMP officers spoke to her harshly. She said they told her to "Get it together," and asked her "Have you been drinking?" Insp. Munro said none of the officers he interviewed reported hearing anything like that. He said Cpl. Olney said he understood how the RCMP's approach that night could have been perceived as insensitive.
"Trying to be sensitive with the next of kin [notification], but at the same time trying to keep the high-risk situation safe, was an extreme challenge," Cpl. Olney said in the report.
The RCMP letter to the family said it could not support the allegation of "improper attitude." The officers had to take a tactical approach, and in this situation their conduct was acceptable, the letter said. Supt. Gibbs drew the same conclusion about the decision to encircle the family home.
Mr. Baptiste said the practice of having the RCMP investigate its own officers, which is generally the case in Saskatchewan for matters not involving serious injury or death, is inherently flawed.
"Police investigating their own is not right," Mr. Baptiste said. "We want to appeal as soon as possible."
Supt. Gibbs in his letter assured Mr. Baptiste that a thorough investigation into his allegations had been conducted by an experienced investigator. Mr. Boushie's first name is misspelled throughout the RCMP's letter to the family.
There were two additional complaints filed with the RCMP, although they did not relate directly to the way the family was treated that night.
The family was upset by the news release issued the day after Mr. Boushie died. It said police made it sound as though Mr. Boushie was a criminal who got what he deserved. The news release referred to two people being taken into custody as part of a "related theft investigation," although theft charges were not laid. At the time, Saskatchewan's First Nations leadership slammed the RCMP, saying they released "just enough prejudicial information for the average reader to draw their own conclusions that the shooting was somehow justified."
The report looked at the national policy on news releases and had the Aug. 10 release reviewed by the force's national communications office. It determined that proper protocols had been followed in this case. Supt. Gibbs said he did not support the family's allegation. Nevertheless, he offered an apology.
"I apologize if you felt the media releases depicted your son as a thief, and caused your family further anguish, as that was never the intent," Supt. Gibbs wrote.
The RCMP in Saskatchewan subsequently changed its procedures, so that Aboriginal Police Services now reviews all news releases involving "serious or sensitive matters" involving Indigenous people.
The final complaint was that police took one of the female witnesses from the shooting scene on a high-speed chase, which, for safety reasons, they should not have done. The RCMP said its officers didn't realize someone was sitting in the vehicle when they got in. Their actions were inappropriate, Supt. Gibbs wrote. On the day Mr. Boushie died, Constable Andrew Park and Constable Mark Wright were given "operational guidance" about the policy on driving and the safe handling of prisoners.
Mr. Murphy said the family will appeal the investigation's findings to the RCMP's civilian review and complaints commission.