Saskatoon police shootings of 2 native people raise race relations questions
Fri Dec 28, 2007
By The Canadian Press
SASKATOON – Two shootings of aboriginal people by Saskatoon police officers in less than a week have raised questions again about the force’s commitment to improving its historically troubled relations with First Nations.
Police Chief Clive Weighill promised Friday that the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations’ special investigative unit will have full access to the investigations of both incidents. FSIN Chief Lawrence Joseph welcomed the co-operation but also said he has concerns and questions about what happened.
Weighill told a news conference that in the latest incident, police received a 911 call from a distraught female just before 3 p.m. Thursday. A short time later, a caller from a neighbourhood southwest of the downtown reported seeing a woman in the street armed with knives.
“Two constables attended the scene and were immediately confronted by an agitated and aggressive female armed with a knife in each hand,” he said.
“The officers attempted to defuse the situation by repeatedly directing the woman to drop the weapon. The woman continued to advance towards one of the officers, at which point the constable discharged her firearm,” Weighill said.
A third officer then arrived on the scene and the woman was physically subdued to remove at least one of the knives still in her hand, Weighill said.
Still aggressive, the woman was handcuffed, he said. An ambulance was called.
The 35-year-old woman, whose name was not released, suffered a gunshot wound to the chest and was listed Friday in serious but stable condition in hospital. Criminal charges against her are being considered, Weighill said.
Early last Saturday, two officers shot and killed Dwayne Charles Dustyhorn, 38, a man they said was threatening their colleague with two knives.
The RCMP have been called in to investigate both shootings.
The FSIN’s special investigations unit – formed after an inquiry into the case of an aboriginal teenager who froze to death on Saskatoon’s outskirts – will focus on a few areas, Joseph said in an interview.
“Whether all options were considered, what the circumstances are and whether these police officers had any previous experience in dealing with aggressive situations and whether the situation called for lethal force,” he said.
“We will be very much involved and making sure the investigation is done in the best possible way.”
Weighill called the two shootings isolated incidents, but said he’s concerned that officers have faced life-threatening situations twice in one week.
“As the chief of police, I am concerned with the risks faced by our officers on a daily basis,” the chief said.
Most of these incidents can be defused without harm to the aggressor or the police, he noted.
“There are, however, unfortunate incidents such as these, where officers must make a split-second decision to protect themselves, their partner and the public.”
While Joseph said he hopes the latest incidents don’t strain relations between the Saskatoon police and the aboriginal community, he acknowledged that there have been tensions in the past.
“We have a long-standing history as First Nations people in Canada and in Saskatchewan where there’s a lot of mistrust with police agencies,” Joseph said.
A race relations report released by the Saskatoon Police Commission in March 2006 identified a need for aboriginal liaison officers, diversity training, and ongoing training for anger management and dispute resolution.
The decision to do the study grew out of a provincial inquiry into the freezing death of 17-year-old Neil Stonechild in 1990.
His case became the flashpoint for an inquiry after two more aboriginal men were found frozen to death beyond Saskatoon’s city limits in January 2000. Another man, Darrell Night, then came forward with his story about being dumped by two police officers in the same area.
Two constables, Bradley Senger and Larry Hartwig, were fired after the Stonechild inquiry but never charged criminally. Two others, Ken Munson and Dan Hatchen, were found guilty of unlawful confinement in Night’s case and spent time in jail.
In September, the province’s Court of Appeal reserved its decision on a bid by Senger and Hartwig to get their jobs back. They’ve always denied they had Stonechild in their police cruiser on the night he died.
Questions remain in the wake of the inquiry about whether aboriginal people are being treated fairly by the justice system, Joseph said.
“It’s very troubling and what can we do to prevent this? What can we do to ensure that justice prevails for all citizens of Saskatchewan, which is everyone’s human right?”
He said he’s not sure substantial changes have been made to police procedures and he’s concerned that the top jobs at the police department, including that of the chief, have changed hands a few times in the last few years.
“We have done a lot of work as a province to try and alleviate the tension that was there. It was at an all-time low in 2000,” he said.
“I think the dialogue needs to continue with First Nations leadership in terms of establishing the proper processes to prevent tragedies like what’s occurred in the past few days in Saskatoon,” he said.
-By Lisa Arrowsmith in Edmonton.