Saskatchewan’s Public Complaints Commission says a Saskatoon police officer used excessive force during the arrest of Jordan Lafond, an Indigenous man who was gravely injured at the end of a car chase in 2016 and died the following day.
But the Saskatoon Police Service won’t say what internal steps it has taken to prevent something like that from happening again, citing an ongoing legal battle over the incident.
Lafond’s mother, Charmaine Dreaver, filed a complaint against the Saskatoon Police Service with the Public Complaints Commission after his death. The provincial body investigates complaints about alleged police misconduct.
This week, the commission confirmed its investigation found “one of the officers involved used excessive use of force.”
“I’ve known this all along,” Dreaver said of the commission’s findings Wednesday. “No matter what, in my heart, I’ve always felt that.”
Details of Lafond’s arrest and death became public during a coroner’s inquest in June 2018.
Lafond, a 22-year-old man from Mistawasis Nehiyawak Cree First Nation, was the front passenger of a stolen truck driven by Reece Fiddler on Oct. 23, 2016.
Police pursued the speeding truck, which was later found to have several hunting weapons inside, including a sawed-off rifle between the front seats. The chase ended when the truck crashed into a fence. Lafond was not wearing a seatbelt and wound up under the truck.
During the inquest, Sgt. Thomas Gresty testified that he believed Lafond, who was lying face down, was resisting arrest while being handcuffed by another officer. Gresty said he kneed Lafond as many as four times in the head. Soon after, officers realized Lafond was in medical distress and an ambulance was called.
Lafond died in hospital the day after his arrest.
Saskatchewan’s chief forensic pathologist testified that Lafond died of blunt force trauma to the head, and that the impact of the crash likely a significant factor in his death. But the exact source of the head trauma could not be confirmed, said Dr. Shaun Ladham.
“There isn’t any difference that we can say,” he testified. “There are injuries that we can see in a motor vehicle accident, but we can see the same things from someone in a fistfight.”
Force was ‘not required’: police
Dreaver said she’s still left with questions after the Public Complaints Commission’s finding — including whether Saskatoon police took any disciplinary action against the officer.
According to Brent Cotter, the commission’s chair, Saskatoon police Chief Troy Cooper accepted the commission’s finding and “is responsible for any discipline that may flow from such matters.”
“We were advised that the chief took such steps as he deemed necessary to address the matter,” Cotter said. The commission does not release its report at the end of an investigation.
Asked about the complaint, a spokesperson for the Saskatoon Police Service said “the PCC found that the force used was not required to take Lafond into custody.”
“The SPS has taken steps internally to reduce the likelihood of this occurring again in the future,” the spokesperson said, adding that the police service could not say more because of a lawsuit filed by Dreaver against Gresty and several other officers involved in Lafond’s arrest.
Chris Murphy, the lawyer who represented Dreaver during the inquest, said that’s not good enough.
“The public cannot be satisfied that the SPS takes findings of excessive force against its officers seriously, because the SPS is not transparent with the public,” Murphy said.
According to Dreaver’s statement of claim — which was filed in the name of Lafond’s then-infant daughter — the conduct of the officers was “egregious and excessive” and “an assault and battery of a nature that was not acceptable in a just and civilized society.”
The statement of claim also alleged the use of force was not justified under Section 25 of the Criminal Code, which deals with police and use of force.
Had Lafond survived, he would have “almost certainly been rendered quadriplegic and/or suffered permanent and significant loss of brain function and capacity,” the statement of claim said.
Dreaver is seeking general and punitive damages against the officers.
Officers believed Lafond may be violent
According to a statement of defence filed on behalf of the officers by lawyer Andrea Rohrke, Gresty believed Lafond was resisting arrest and “used only as much force as reasonably necessary, being verbal commands and blows to Lafond, in order to gain compliance.”
Officers had reasonable grounds to believe Lafond and Fiddler might be violent, given a witness told police he saw people in the truck sawing off the barrel and stock of a rifle, the statement of defence says.
Since the chase ended only because the truck crashed, officers “had the reasonable belief that the occupants of [the truck] had no intention to comply with any future police commands,” according to the statement of defence.
The first officer to reach Lafond, Sgt. Kelly Olfason, stepped on his hand to prevent him from potentially grabbing a weapon, the statement says.
Olafson testified during the 2018 coroner’s inquest that Lafond didn’t move after he was handcuffed. The officer did not remember Gresty’s knee strikes, he told the inquest jury.
Rohrke could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The Saskatoon Police Association, the officers’ union, declined to comment.
‘Still police investigating police’
The Saskatoon Police Service investigated its own officers’ conduct during Lafond’s arrest, with an investigation observer tapped by the Ministry of Justice overlooking the investigation.
According to a statement issued by police Chief Cooper after the inquest, “a Crown review of those findings did not result in charges.”
Dreaver is among those who believe changes announced last week to police oversight in Saskatchewan don’t go far enough, because they will allow a police force from one part of the province to investigate the conduct of officers working elsewhere.
“In the end, it’s still police investigating police,” Dreaver said. “I would really like to see a completely civilian-led oversight.”
Dreaver said the police killing of George Floyd in the United States recently stirred her to action. She organized a rally in Saskatoon this past weekend.
“Our main goal was to be supportive with everybody else that’s rallying and protesting right now, because we need changes in Canada,” she said.