‘It’s shameful’: Family of mentally ill man killed by police baffled by lack of charges
Rena LaFleur believes a breakdown of communication and a lack of training on how to deal with people with mental illness are what cost her son his life when three Toronto police officers shot and killed him last year.
The officers fired a volley of at least 21 bullets at Devon LaFleur, eight of which struck and killed him. The 30-year-old Ottawa man, who had schizophrenia and was off his medication on the night of March 4, 2016, was pronounced dead at Sunnybrook Hospital.
After 15 months of waiting, his mother learned this week none of the officers involved will be criminally charged. She believes it’s the wrong decision.
“They created a situation in which they were confronting [him]. I can’t see how they can possibly justify that that is a viable mental health protocol. It’s shameful,” Rena LaFleur told CBC News in an interview.
“I find it’s just a shame and many more people are going to die, especially the most vulnerable people in our communities.”
SIU report read aloud to family
The province’s Special Investigations Unit issued a media release Monday announcing the three responding officers were justified in taking down what they perceived to be a legitimate threat. SIU director Tony Loparco found the officers’ use of force was appropriate because they acted in self defence.
The SIU investigates cases of death, serious injury, or sexual assault involving police in Ontario.
The oversight agency wrote a report but it will not be made public, and the LaFleur family hasn’t seen it. The family said an SIU representative came to their home read the full report aloud to them, and that they had to record it.
The news release, which did not name Devon LaFleur, laid out the basic facts of the events that unfolded, which started with him robbing a bank in Ottawa and then driving to Toronto.
Ottawa police shared his description with Toronto police and told them he was armed with a handgun. The release said the one “caveat” was that his family reported a pellet gun was missing from the family home and police weren’t certain whether that was the weapon used in the robbery.
The family maintains the Toronto police not only knew the weapon he was carrying was a pellet gun, but that it was also not functioning.
Police knew son had mental illness, mother says
The release does not mention Devon LaFleur’s history with mental illness, but his mother told CBC News she shared her son’s condition with police and that there was a plan to have plainclothes Toronto police officers respond at the home of a friend whom Devon LaFleur was supposed to meet the night he fled town.
“They had a lot of time. They had what seemed to be a good plan in place and they changed it at the last minute,” Rena LaFleur said, adding she believes that at some point, crucial information about her son was not relayed to responding officers.
Instead, four uniformed police arrived on scene in three marked cruisers, one of which had the roof lights flashing. After the officers yelled at him repeatedly to drop the weapon and he ignored their demands, they drew their guns.
He later pointed the pellet gun at one of the responding officers before all three of them fired their guns. One officer fired 12 to 13 shots, the second fired eight to nine shots, and the third fired one bullet, according to the release.
Past de-escalations with police successful, mother says
On Tuesday, Rena LaFleur said Ottawa police had successfully de-escalated tense situations with her son in the past using verbal cues. But the police in Toronto took a completely different approach, she said.
The family said they were told one of the officers said, “If you raise that gun I will shoot you. Do you understand?”
‘There needs to be other methods of de-escalation, not lethal force, because you can’t come back from that.’ – Devon LaFleur’s sister, Sascha
“So how do you say that to somebody who’s in psychosis, that believes that the angels will protect him from the bullets?” said Devon LaFleur’s younger sister, 29-year-old Sascha LaFleur.
“You’re provoking him. There needs to be other methods of de-escalation, not lethal force, because you can’t come back from that.”
Rena LaFleur said she understands how Toronto police would have felt threatened, but still believes their response made her son act out in fear.
“He didn’t have to die,” she said.
“And these police officers didn’t have to live with the fact that they killed somebody who was basically unarmed.”
Officers ‘more than justified’ in their actions
The SIU director was quoted in the media release saying there were no reasonable grounds to believe the three subject officers used excessive force.
“All three subject officers clearly indicated that they fired their guns in order to end the threat of serious bodily harm or death that the man’s actions represented,” Loparco wrote.
“The conclusion of all three officers was that the man was going to try to kill [subject officer number one]. A fourth officer at the scene similarly indicated that he would have fired his own gun had one of the other officers not been in his line of fire. Their concerns were more than justified in the circumstances.
“It makes no difference that the man was in fact in possession of a CO2 pistol, and that the officers were aware of that possibility. They did not have the luxury of waiting to be fired upon to confirm the nature of the weapon in question. The CO2 pistol looked exactly like a real firearm, and the police were entitled to treat it as such.”
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