Two officers of the Ottawa Police Service were involved in a car chase that ended with the death of 24-year-old Alex Cross and an unnamed 39-year-old on April 12, 2016. Cross was killed when a Pontiac G6 plowed into his car on the city’s Vanier Parkway, throwing him and a 21-year-old woman from the vehicle. The woman was seriously injured. The driver of the G6 died in hospital eight months after the crash. The two officers had chased the G6. They have never been named publicly.
Now the Ottawa Citizen has gained access to a letter sent to Ottawa’s police chief, Charles Bordeleau, by the head of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the agency that examines police harm to civilians, offering a stern rebuke of the two officers and raises significant questions about the training that police officers receive and the transparency of investigations into police.
The “Old Boys” Letter
The letter from SIU head Tony Loparco to Chief Bordeleau, states that the police chase “clearly” broke Ottawa Police Service policy and “likely also ran afoul” of the provincial regulations that govern police chases, specifically of Ontario Regulation 266/10 under the Police Services Act (Shaw 2017). Additionally, the letter points out that the two officers were “long overdue” for their driver training (Shaw 2017).
Notably the letter was dated April 21, 2017, which was about a month before the two officers were cleared of any wrongdoing by the Special Investigations Unit, the very unit that is raising these issues and reporting them, not publicly but only to the chief of the officers’ force. This raises deep concerns and questions about the transparency of the SIU, its insiders practices and friendly relationships with the forces it is supposed to be independently investigating, favoritism toward killer cops, and the lack of public accountability for police and for the SIU.
This letter was only obtained through the efforts of the Citizen and its filing of a freedom of information request. Loparco’s concerns about the force were not communicated publicly, only to police, and did not seem to inform the SIU assessment of the officers’ actions or the SIU’s decision to let them off, odd given the issues raised by the SIU’s own director in his letter.
The “Investigation”: Chasing Training
Four SIU investigators and two forensics investigators were assigned to the case. They interviewed nine civilian witnesses and five witness police officers. On May 17, 2017, thirteen months after the crash, the SIU absolved the two officers of even any suggestion of wrongdoing. Said the SIU news releases at the time: “There is no basis whatsoever to hold either of the two subject officers responsible for the terrible outcomes of the motor vehicle collision” (Shaw 2017).
Yet, this finding is in complete contradiction with Loparco’s own review and assessment of the officer’s actions in this case as communicated to Chief Bordeleau. Loparco’s letter states that, if not for a senior officer calling off the chase, the two officers could have been in criminal jeopardy and this was a “pursuit that never should have occurred” (Shaw 2017).
According to the Ottawa Police Service, its Suspect Apprehension Pursuit policy was developed in conjunction with provincial guidelines that all Ontario police services must follow (Laucius 2017). All officers involved in pursuits are required to have successfully completed a course in pursuit driver training which is approved by the Ontario Police College and they must complete refresher training every two years (Lauicius 2017). Yet the two officers in this case did not follow the policies. Said Loparco, in his letter: “It is my hope that as Chief of the Ottawa Police Service, you will revisit the training that these two subject officers have received” (quoted in Shaw 2017). Yet, really, what does it matter if police disregard policies leading to the deaths and injuries of multiple civilians if they face no negative consequences for their actions?
It is still not known why one officer made the decision to try to stop the Pontiac G6 around 1:15 AM that morning. All that has been said publicly is that it was for “licensing and regulatory” reasons (Shaw 2017). There was no criminal offence suspected. Yet Ottawa police policy only allows for chases in criminal cases, and a handful of other restrictive conditions (Shaw 2017). The officer who initiated the pursuit was not conducting a criminal investigation and already had the license plate number for the G6. Loparco noted that the Ottawa police list of requirements for engaging in a pursuit includes: “an identified criminal offence; no other alternative for apprehension; a threat to public safety; the vehicles involved in the pursuit are marked and the police officers involved have successfully completed police college driver training and refresher every two years” (Lauicius 2017). The first officer even radioed for assistance leading another officer to join the chase. A road sergeant had to make two calls for the officers to end their pursuit.
In Loparco’s words, the road sergeant insulted the officers from charges but he does not say why since the officers did initiate and pursue a chase improperly. Said Loparco:
“I commend him for his commitment to public safety. I am also hopeful that the officers under his command appreciate that his directions insulated them from criminal jeopardy in these circumstances. Their imprudent actions could well have grounded dangerous driving or criminal negligence charges if they had persisted in a pursuit that should never have happened in the first place.” (quoted in Laucius 2017)
Here is the thing. The fact that the chase was initiated in “the absence of a criminal investigation,” as Loparco notes in his letter, means, by definition, that the two officers in pursuit broke both their own force’s rules, as well as possibly violating provincial police chase regulations as established in the Police Services Act.
Why did SIU head Loparco raise these serious issues privately with the chief of the force involved, but never publicly? Why did Loparco identify these serious violations yet absolve the officers in spite of his knowledge, beforehand, of these violations?
While the SIU director often sends a background letter to the chief of police in the jurisdiction where the incident occurred, outlining any concerns the director has about the case, after a case ends, this letter was sent beforehand.
Where there are questions about a police officer’s actions under terms of the Ontario Police Act, a police chief or a victim’s family member can request an investigation by the Office Of Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD). This office is responsible for receiving, managing, and overseeing public complaints about police in Ontario (Laucius 2017).
At present, there is no legislative mechanism for the SIU to notify OIPRD about concerns it has regarding misconduct or neglect of duty involving police (Laucius 2017). In consultations with Court of Appeal Justice Michael Tulloch, who led a recent review of police oversight in Ontario, it has been recommended that the SIU be made a “direct complainant” to OIPRD or the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (Laucius 2017).
This case offers some important insights into the nature of police “oversight” in the Canadian state context. It shows the secrecy of investigations into police and the lack of accountability in even obvious or basic situations of police violations of their own limited regulations. It also shows the friendly “old boys” networking that exists between investigative bodies and the police they are supposed to investigate. The state protects the state and informs its members instead of the public.
Dawson, Tyler. 2017. “Private Letter to Bordeleau Reveals Officers Lacked Training in Night of Horrific Crash.” Ottawa Citizen. October 19. http://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/dawson-training-needed-on-police-pursuit-policies
Laucius, Joanne. 2017. “SIU Director Sent Scathing Letter to Ottawa Chief Over Downtown Chase.” Ottawa Sun. October 18. http://www.ottawasun.com/2017/10/18/siu-director-sent-scathing-letter-to-ottawa-chief-over-downtown-police-chase