April 3, 2014

Kevin Gourlay

Police officers have very difficult jobs.  They routinely face difficult and dangerous situations where split second decisions have to be made. Their job is to protect the public and doing so can often mean choosing the lesser of two evils — this can mean choosing between letting a suspect get away or engaging in a police chase that puts the public safety at risk.  Police must make quick decisions to determine whether public safety is best protected by letting a suspect flee.

The police have guidelines to assist in the determination of whether a pursuit is justified in the circumstances.  Further, the Emergency Vehicle Driving Regulation sets out when an emergency vehicle is permitted to exercise its powers under s. 122 of the Motor Vehicle Act and not abide by speed limits, stop signs, etc.

Undoubtedly, most of the time police follow the guidelines and make the right decisions.  However, two recent cases demonstrate how overzealous pursuits, in breach of guidelines, can have horrific consequences.

In reasons released earlier this week, Watkins v. Dormuth, 2014 BCSC 543, Mr. Justice Blok considered an accident where the plaintiff was trying to make a left turn when she was t-boned by a police car trying to pass her on the left.  The police had just been notified that a bait car had been “activated.”  This is supposed to be treated as a “Code 2” event, presumably as it does not pose a particular danger to the public, not as a “Code 3” event.  Code 2 events do not require the use of emergency equipment.  Treating it as a Code 3 event, the police officer made the aggressive pass that ultimately resulted in serious injuries to the plaintiff:

[91]         Despite his conclusion that Ms. Watkins had not detected his presence, Cst. Dormuth chose the option that created the very risk that materialized: a high-speed collision as he attempted to pass the Watkins vehicle by going in the oncoming lane of traffic.

[92]         Cst. Dormuth had the much safer option of staying behind the Watkins vehicle for a longer time so as to allow Ms. Watkins to perceive him and pull over.  In any event, even if Ms. Watkins ought to have detected the lights and sirens of the police car this does not mean that Cst. Dormuth was forced to take the risky action he did.

[93]         I agree with the observation of Cst. Pallan that Cst. Dormuth’s move was aggressive.  I also find it to be unnecessarily aggressive given the nature of the dispatch (not involving harm to the public, so far as was known), Cst. Dormuth being unaware whether the first two police cars were proceeding Code 3, and the fact that two police cars were already ahead of him.  He simply had no need to pass the Watkins vehicle as he did.

While the police were not physically involved in the collision at issue in Bergen v. Guliker, 2014 BCSC 5, similarly overzealous pursuits resulted in the deaths of two people.  In that tragic case, the RCMP knew that Guliker was suicidal and behind the wheel of a vehicle.  The Court held that they ought to have hung back as Guliker was stopped and, to the RCMP’s knowledge, waiting to speak with a family member.  Instead, they pursued the vehicle, resulting in Guliker fleeing and, moments later, colliding at very high speed with another vehicle.

[238]… In deciding to both initiate or continue a pursuit, the RCMP were required by the Emergency Vehicle Driving Regulation to weigh the seriousness of the offence and the need for immediate apprehension against the risk posed by the pursuit to public safety. A pursuit may only be initiated and continued when the seriousness of the situation and the necessity of immediate apprehension outweigh the risk to public safety created by the pursuit.

[239]     The principles governing the duty of care relating to police pursuit, as articulated in Radke (BCSC) at para. 77, include this risk assessment. The primary and overriding principle is public safety and pursuits should only be initiated when other alternatives are not available.

[248]     Instead, Constables Huff and Brand approached Mr. Guliker without knowing the location of the other officers available to assist them and aware that Mr. Guliker would see them approaching and was likely to flee. I can reach no other reasonable conclusion than that the RCMP plan at that moment was captured by words “if he runs, we’ll chase him”.

[249]     Once Mr. Guliker accelerated down Bustin Road, it was obvious to the RCMP officers that Mr. Guliker’s sighting of their vehicles precipitated his flight. A proper risk assessment at this point would have alerted the officers to the significant public safety risk of chasing a suicidal individual who is determined to evade apprehension down unfamiliar rural roads at high rates of speed.

[250]     Nevertheless, the officers commenced and continued a pursuit of Mr. Guliker up to the point of the Collision.

[251]     To summarize, in my opinion Constables Huff and Brand failed to conduct a proper risk assessment at two critical times: (1) before deciding to proceed down Bustin Road without a plan in place that recognised the likelihood of Mr. Guliker fleeing in his vehicle, and (2) after proceeding down Bustin Road toward Mr. Guliker’s location and seeing him accelerate away. A proper first risk assessment would have precipitated the development of a plan to address the likelihood of Mr. Guliker fleeing. A proper second risk assessment would have called off the chase and considered other options.

The police have an unenviable task in making such decisions in the moment and, undoubtedly, with a component of adrenaline mixed in.  However, the tragic results in these cases highlight the importance that those charged with that task properly consider public safety before making the decisions.

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