W5: Use of Force by RCMP Emergency Response Teams in Northern B.C. Questioned
There is a lot of human emotion in the work we do at W5 and sometimes it rises to searing levels. One of those stories is our investigation into the shooting deaths of Rodney Jackson and Greg Matters, two men who never met each other, but shared the same fate.
Both were shot and killed in northern British Columbia – Rodney Jackson in 2009 and Greg Matters in 2012. Both died at the hands of an RCMP Emergency Response Team. Ever since, their families have asked the same question: Why did it have to happen?
Thirty-five year-old Rodney Jackson, a member of the Gitanmaax First Nations Band, was living in the wilderness to escape the Mounties in Hazelton, BC. They had warrants for his arrest that stretched back over three years for charges that included domestic assault, drug possession and failure to attend court.
“Rodney wasn’t a danger to society,” said his uncle, Aubrey Jackson. “He wasn’t a rapist. He wasn’t a killer. He wasn’t the demon the RCMP painted him out to be.”
But Rodney was a hunter and he had a rifle. When someone told the Mounties where Rodney was hiding they decided to deploy a heavily armed Emergency Response Team to arrest him.
An officer wrote to a superior, “Let’s get an Ops Plan in action to get this guy before winter hits, ERT, helicopter, all the fun stuff.”
“They saw it as a chance to get all the toys - the M16s, get into their camouflage gear and their face paint,” said Cameron Ward, the lawyer for the Jackson family. “But that’s not what the Emergency Response Team is for. It’s for hostage takings, barricade situations.”
There were no hostages or barricades at Rodney’s remote cabin, just Rodney, his brother Sonny and their dogs. When the dogs started barking on the morning of September 26th, 2009, Rodney thought it might be a grizzly bear and, taking his rifle for protection, went out to investigate. He had no idea that seven heavily armed police officers were waiting for him.
At the Coroner’s Inquest two years later, ERT officers testified that they called out to Rodney, telling him to drop his weapon, but he didn’t respond. They fired several shots at Rodney which struck and killed him.
The Coroner ruled that Rodney’s death was a homicide, a death caused by someone, but not necessarily criminal. And although Coroners’ Inquests don’t assign blame, they do make recommendations. At the inquest into Rodney Jackson’s death, the jury recommended better communications and better training; lessons for the ERT to ensure that this kind of tragedy wouldn’t happen again. But it did.
Three years later, the ERT was called out to arrest 40 year-old Greg Matters, a former Master Corporal in the Canadian Army who came home to Prince George, BC with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“He clearly had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” said Dr. Greg Passey, his psychiatrist and one of Canada’s leading experts in PTSD. “All the classic signs, the nightmares the anxiety, the panic attacks.”
That instability led to run-ins with the police, charges for uttering threats. But it was an ongoing dispute with his brother that sparked a series of events that would end in Greg’s death.
It started early in the morning of September 9, 2012 when Greg allegedly assaulted his brother after chasing him off their mother’s property. The Mounties decided to arrest Greg that evening, but he had driven to a remote cabin on the rear of his property.
He didn’t have a gun, but the Mounties believed he did, so they mobilized the Emergency Response Team. They also sent a helicopter to scout over the property which raised Greg’s PTSD to a new level.
“It would be hugely triggering,” said Dr. Passey. “He would have got more into his fight or flight mode.”
The RCMP ordered the helicopter to leave the scene, but the damage was done. Greg was now in a highly emotional state. Believing a neighbour was coming to drive him to surrender at the police station, Greg left the cabin. But when he discovered the gate to his property had been broken by police, he became angry.
Officers later testified that Greg threatened them with a hatchet. They fired a Taser, but it didn’t work. One of the officers fired his rifle. Greg died from two bullets that struck him in the back.
“I don’t understand why an emergency response team with men in camouflage gear and a helicopter [was deployed]” said Greg’s sister, Tracey. “It’s just such an overreaction.”
In its first case since it was established in 2012, BC’s Independent Investigations Office, the IIO, ruled that the officers who killed Greg were acting in self-defence and no criminal offence was committed. But the IIOs Chief Civilian Director, Richard Rosenthal, questioned the decision making process that resulted in the deployment of the ERT. He sent his concerns to the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, an organization that can investigate beyond the narrow mandate of the IIO and examine the conduct of the RCMP throughout the whole incident.
At the Coroner’s Inquest, held in Prince George in late 2013, there were questions about the IIO itself, particularly its ability to gather evidence from the officer who shot Greg. Under provincial law, the officer who fired the fatal shots did not have to answer the IIO’s questions.
There were also questions about why the ERT did not try to stop Greg Matters with less-lethal options, like a beanbag gun and a police dog.
“I don’t think they completed their investigation in those circumstances,” said Cameron Ward, the lawyer who represented the Matters family
Now the IIO has agreed to take another look.
“It’s very clear that at minimum my office needs to issue a supplemental report,” said Richard Rosenthal.
That’s one small victory for the Matters family. Another bitter-sweet moment was the verdict of homicide at the Coroner’s Inquest in January, 2014. But Inquests don’t assign blame and that left the family frustrated.
“We managed to get some facts out, but I still believe that criminal charges should be considered.” said Tracey Matters outside the courthouse after the verdict. “And this isn’t the end of the road for us. We will be looking into other avenues.”
Also present for the verdict was Aubrey Jackson, the uncle of Rodney who had been shot and killed by the ERT three years before Greg. Emotions ran high when he met Greg’s mother, Lorraine, for the first time.
“I look in her eyes and I can see the pain in her that I feel,” said Aubrey.
Although the Coroner’s Inquest didn’t assign blame, it did make recommendations about the ERT’s training and communications, recommendations that were similar to those Aubrey heard at the inquest into his nephew’s death. But he has little faith that anything will change.
“I’m afraid, sorely afraid that it will happen again,” he said. “And I’m hoping that the recommendations will be considered with haste and implemented.”
Before they met, the families of Rodney Jackson and Greg Matters had struggled alone with their grief and anger for what happened to their loved ones. Now they are united in their quest to find justice and prevent another tragedy.