In the Canadian state context there are few legal outcomes as rare as a police officer being convicted for killing a civilian. It is rare enough that an officer who kills someone is even charged for the taking of someone’s life. This is true even in those provinces that have separate investigations units that look into killings by police rather than simply turning a case over to another police force to “investigate.” Indeed as the recent decision by Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) not to bring charges in the police killing of Andrew Loku and ongoing criticisms of the backlogged Independent Investigations Office (IIO) in British Columbia show, these agencies remain limited, and often impede by or too close to, police departments involved in killings. The Loku killing in particular has led to community mobilizations by Black Lives Matter Toronto and allies.
Still it is safe to assume that most residents of provinces that have a dedicated unit that investigates police killings of civilians, like Alberta, would expect that any officer involved in killing a civilian would, at the very least, be taken off of active street duty while under investigation or before any conclusions are released to the public. If an officer may have acted inappropriately, unduly, disgracefully it would only make sense that they would not be released upon the public until review of the officer, their outlook, and conduct was completed and some assessment made. Surely a killer cop would not be turned out on the streets to kill again.
Well, incredibly, stunningly, it seems that just such a situation has been allowed to happen in Alberta with, perhaps predictably, lethal consequences. On January 25, 2016 David McQueen, a quadriplegic, was shot by three Calgary police officers while in his wheelchair inside the doorway to his house. In March 2016 it was revealed that one of the officers who shot McQueen was, at the very moment he fired his weapon, under investigation by the province’s investigation unit ASIRT (Alberta Serious Incident Response Team) for killing another man a year earlier. And he had not been cleared of wrongdoing in the previous killing.
Less than a year before, on March 16, 2015, the officer who would be involved in McQueen’s killing, had shot Anthony Heffernan four times, three times in the head, while the young man was alone and in some distress, but defenseless, in a hotel room. In fact police broke down the door to forcibly enter Heffernan’s room in a Hotel 8 before shooting him.
Said Grant Heffernan, Anthony’s brother, upon hearing the news that the very cop who killed his brother had killed again: “I am more than outraged that this happened to somebody else in Calgary” (quoted in Grant 2016). The family had been told by ASIRT that as of November 2015 the officer had not returned to work but was actively trying to get back on the job (Grant 2016). Heffernan suggests that family could have dealt with the officer being placed on administrative duty, though they by no means saw this as ideal in the circumstances (Grant 2016). They were shocked that he had been returned to the streets. As Grant Heffernan said upon hearing that the same officer that killed his brother had killed again: “This is unfathomable that this happened and is totally unacceptable” (Grant 2016).
The Heffernan family lawyer echoed those sentiments. Tom Engel, commenting on the return of the officer to street duty ahead of being cleared by ASIRT and the Alberta Crown prosecutor: “Frankly, it’s shocking. You have to respect the presumption of innocence. I don’t think that you should necessarily suspend the officer from all police duties, but you certainly would take him off the street so that he wouldn’t be in a position to do that again” (quoted in Grant 2016).
There are many questions to be answered in trying to figure out how a young man missing his check-out time could escalate so quickly to his being shot and killed by police. When he had no weapon and no capacity to harm the public (being isolated in a hotel room by himself).
There are also significant questions about how and why an officer under review for a killing of a civilian could be out on the streets to kill again. When a police officer is involved in a shooting, he or she is placed on a minimum 30 day administrative leave. At the end of that period, an evaluation is supposed to be undertaken to determine whether the officer can return to active duty and whether restrictions, and what type of restrictions, will be placed on them following their return. In this case it is not yet clear why the officer was allowed to return to the streets and what, if any, restrictions governed their activity.
On Thursday, March 17, 2016, the Heffernan family reported that the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team has finally told them that it has recommended murder charges. The decision to lay charges rests with the Crown prosecutors. In Grant Heffernan’s words: “ASIRT is pressing hard,” (Stark 2016). This is, of course, welcome news. Charges are, as we have noted, rarely laid against officers who kill civilians, even in instances where the case would appear straightforwardly to demand charges be brought.
The news from ASIRT has brought some comfort to the family. Grant Heffernan suggests it is helping their recovery: “I feel a little better about it. We were very skeptical about ASIRT and any officer being charged” (quoted in Stark 2016). The family will not know until May 1 whether the Crown will, in fact, follow through and lay charges against the officer.
Indeed, while the police have not responded formally to this news they did offer a rather arrogant, and perhaps knowingly confident, expression of their awareness that no homicide charges have ever been laid against a Calgary police officer (Stark 2016). Such has been too consistent practice in Canada when police brutalize or kill civilians.
The Heffernan family has filed a complaint under the Police Act. That case can go before the law enforcement review board even if charges are not formally laid against the officer (Grant 2016).
For Grant Heffernan there is only one appropriate outcome. That is to ensure that the cop cannot kill a third time. In his words: “The only way there is going to be any accountability and justice, is if the subject officer who killed my brother … faces criminal prosecution” (quoted in Grant 2016).
Grant, Meghan. 2016. “Anthony Heffernan, Dave McQueen Both Shot by Same Calgary Police Officer.” CBC News. February 10. http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/canada/calgary/anthony-heffernan-dave-mcqueen-shooting-calgary-police-asirt-1.3440590
Stark, Jennifer. 2016. “Police Officer Who Shot Anthony Heffernan in Calgary Motel May Face Murder Charge.” CBC News. March 17. http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/canada/calgary/asirt-shooting-charges-anthony-heffernan-1.3496182