The judge who led an inquiry into the road death of a northern Alberta man seven years ago recommended that all deaths resulting from collisions with RCMP vehicles be subject to a formal assessment process to determine whether new recruits need more driving training.
Tracy Janvier’s death on Aug. 21, 2016, should be “the first such death to be examined in this way,” writes Justice Stephanie Cleary of the Alberta Court of Justice in a fatality inquiry report dated Aug. 9. August of this year.
Janvier, 41, was walking along an unlit stretch of road in the early hours of the morning when he was hit by a vehicle. He was lying in the road when he was hit a second time: hit by a police van that was speeding toward the site of the original collision.
Another man, James Cardinal, suffered a serious hand injury when he was struck by the RCMP truck’s mirror.
The accidents occurred on Highway 881, north of the village of Janvier, Alta.
Const. Michelle Phillips, who was driving the RCMP vehicle, was charged with dangerous driving causing death and dangerous driving causing bodily harm.
Phillips was found not guilty of both charges in 2019. In his sentencing, King’s Bench Judge John McCarthy wrote that he could not conclude that the second collision contributed significantly to Janvier’s death and that while the officer was wrong , the “criminal consequences” were not justified in his case.
Cleary’s report follows an inquest into Janvier’s death held in Fort McMurray in April of this year.
The judge determined that a series of miscommunications and mistaken assumptions led Phillips to not realize he was speeding at the scene of a pedestrian collision on a darkened road until it was too late.
Cleary makes six recommendations regarding the training RCMP officers and 911 operators receive, and recommends that the national police take steps to improve its relationship with Indigenous communities.
“I recommend that a formal process be developed to evaluate all deaths resulting from collisions with RCMP vehicles to determine if any changes or additions should be made to the existing curriculum for the Police Driving Unit portion of training in Depot Division,” Cleary writes in the report.
During the inquest, Marina Nohokoo, Tracy Janvier’s sister, said she hoped the RCMP would use her brother’s death as a scenario during training.
Cleary recommends that the RCMP could use deaths involving private citizens in the training curriculum, with permission from the deceased’s family members.
Periodic review of officer driving skills, particularly for members who respond to emergencies, could also be incorporated into their training and professional development, the report recommends.
Cleary recommends that 911 operators direct citizens to place their vehicle in the driving lane with the hazards activated. This would effectively erect a physical barrier across the road and provide a warning to other vehicles about the location of the collision, Cleary wrote.
It also recommends that the RCMP learn lessons from the Nova Scotia Mass Casualties Commission report, especially as it relates to officer training. The commission investigated the mass shooting in Nova Scotia in 2020, when a gunman killed 22 people. The RCMP’s response to the mass shooting was widely criticized.
Cleary said the amount of time new police officers spend in training can be “insufficient even for a mature individual.” Recruits spend six months in initial training, followed by two to six months of supervision, she said in the report.
Lack of communication is a factor
Cleary also recommends improving the ability of emergency services to identify the location of calls.
James Cardinal, who was injured when his hand was struck by the police truck’s mirror, was the person who called 911 for help after Janvier was initially hit by a vehicle.
Cardinal, who was in his 70s, spoke Dene as his first language. As a result of a miscommunication between Cardinal and the 911 operator, the operator believed the scene of the first accident was further north than it actually was.
Emergency services did not have the technology to accurately pinpoint the location of the first collision based on Cardinal’s call. The operator had to rely on his conversation with Cardinal and Phillips’ knowledge of the area to give him instructions.
“The combination of incorrect information and what turned out to be incorrect assumptions led to the responding officer not realizing he was at the location where Mr. Janvier had been struck,” Cleary writes in his report.
Cleary’s report says it is difficult to conclude how Janvier’s death could have been prevented, “except by mere chance.”
Since Janvier’s death, Alberta emergency services have improved their ability to determine the location of accidents.
They can now accurately identify 911 phone calls if there are cell towers in the area, even if accuracy might be lower in rural areas. In his recommendations, Cleary suggested the provincial government should identify any areas with gaps in cellular coverage and rectify them.
The investigation also revealed a lack of connection between the RCMP and the local Indigenous community.
Ida Stepanowich, an elder of Chipewyan Prairie First Nation and former RCMP officer, told the inquest that “the connection between RCMP members and the community has been missing for 10 years or more at this point.”
Nohokoo suggested that the RCMP develop “a brief internship, free from formal police work, that would help police officers develop personal relationships with community members.”