Police involved in the fatal shooting of an escaped robbery suspect could have done things differently, but thoughts that another course of action would have spared the life of 18-year-old Bill Saunders will remain just speculation, a judge has ruled.
"Possibly, use of lethal force on Mr. Saunders would not have been required," provincial court Judge Lindy Choy wrote in an inquest report released Thursday. "Sadly, it will never be known.
"While there may have been another way of approaching the apprehension, we must be cautious not to second guess decisions which were made during a high stress and rapidly unfolding scenario," Choy wrote.
Saunders was killed Nov. 15, 2017 following his escape in a stolen police van.
But it was Saunders’ escape and police actions that precipitated it that ultimately led to his death, and was at the "heart" of the inquest, Choy wrote.
Saunders was arrested Nov. 12 on suspicion of robbing a video lottery terminal worker on Lake Manitoba First Nation, 170 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. He was taken to the Lundar RCMP detachment, where arrangements were made two days later to transport him to Winnipeg.
Const. Terry Davis, a member of the RCMP’s court liaison unit, had already worked a full shift when he was assigned to drive Saunders to Winnipeg, the inquest heard.
En route to Winnipeg on Nov. 14, Saunders asked Davis if he could pull over so he could relieve himself. Davis agreed to undo Saunders’ handcuffs after he complained they were too tight, as well as his jacket, at which point Saunders attacked Davis, choking him from behind, Davis testified.
Saunders kicked Davis in the chest and beat his head with a baton before Davis was able to grab his pistol and shot Saunders in the shoulder. Saunders attacked Davis a second time, wrenching the pistol from Davis’s hands before jumping in the police van and driving away.
Choy wrote that the circumstances preceding Saunders’ escape raised several "red flags": Davis had already completed a full shift prior to driving Saunders and was working alone; Davis had only "basic" information about the charges against Saunders, leading him to falsely assess Saunders as a low safety risk; the court liaison unit at the time had no set policy for how to conduct prisoner rest stops.
A subsequent review of surveillance video inside the police van showed Saunders in possession of what appeared to be a plastic knife.
"If this item had been found earlier, it would have better informed Const. Davis’s risk assessment," Choy wrote.
A prisoner escort policy has since been updated to require continuous risk assessments and that a prisoner be removed from a vehicle while in transport only if their safety or that of a police officer or the public is at risk.
An independent review recommended police be required to provide a minimum of two officers for prisoner transports.
"In my view, while a two officer escort undoubtedly provides greater safety and security, if policy safeguards are adhered to and a proper risk assessment is conducted, transport of remand prisoners can reasonably be carried out by a single officer," Choy said.
After his attack on Davis, Saunders drove to his parents’ home in Eriksdale, where he used a bolt cutter to remove his leg shackles, packed a duffle bag and then left.
Saunders led police on a high-speed chase early in the morning of Nov. 15 before he lost control of the van on Provincial Road 417 near Lake Manitoba First Nation, and veered into a ditch.
As officers on scene waited for the tactical team to arrive, Saunders continued to shift the van back and forth in an attempt to get out of the ditch.
The inquest heard police considered a number of tactics to stop Saunders should he get out of the ditch, including ramming his vehicle or discharging a gas canister into the van.
When the tactical team arrived, officers approached the front of the van before branching off into two groups. Two officers testified they were in the direct path of the van when Saunders put it in drive and began accelerating.
"Perceiving the members to be in immediate risk of death or grievous bodily harm, both started shooting almost simultaneously," Choy said. "They continued to fire until the van stopped its forward motion."
An independent use-of-force report provided to court concluded the officers’ use of lethal force was consistent with RCMP policy, given their belief Saunders was armed and driving toward them.
The same report found that had police chosen to deploy gas into the van earlier, the tactical team officers might not have had to approach the van in the way that they did.
Choy wrote that officers "created a self-generated jeopardy" when they approached the front of the van.
"It was submitted by counsel for the Saunders family that (tactical team officers) acted hastily and forcefully, and I do not disagree with this statement," she wrote.
"That being said, (their) approach to the situation must be considered in the context of their information regarding an escaped remanded prisoner who had already violently attacked another officer, stolen his vehicle and sidearm and left him for dead.
"In hindsight, the technique was not flawless… but the facts do not warrant any recommendations relating to how the apprehension unfolded."
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.