The RCMP’s watchdog says Canada’s national police force racially discriminated against the mother of Colten Boushie during their investigation of the Indigenous man’s shooting death in 2016 — a finding accepted by RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki.
The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) also found that the way officers informed Debbie Baptiste of Boushie’s death was insensitive and that an early RCMP media release about the shooting could have left the impression “that the young man’s death was ‘deserved.'”
Officers also mishandled witnesses and evidence in the controversial case, according to CRCC findings that will be made public on Monday. CBC News has obtained copies of the reports.
Boushie, 22, was shot and killed after he and four others from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan drove onto white farmer Gerald Stanley’s property near Biggar, Sask., in August 2016.
An altercation occurred between the people in the SUV and Stanley and his son, ending in the fatal shooting.
In February 2018, a jury found Stanley, 56, not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter.
1 or more officers smelled grieving mother’s breath: CRCC
The CRCC launched its probe soon after the verdict, in part to assess whether officers discriminated on the basis of race. Boushie’s family had complained to the RCMP about insensitive treatment and appealed to the CRCC for an independent review.
Officers visited the home of Baptiste, Boushie’s mother, on the night of the shooting. They were there to break the news of Boushie’s death and search the home for a witness they believed might have a gun.
While finding no signs of discrimination in officers’ approach and search of the home, the CRCC found evidence of discrimination during “the police’s conduct towards Ms. Baptiste with respect to her sobriety and her credibility.” The family had accused one officer of telling the grieving Baptiste to “get it together” and asking if she had been drinking.
“One or more RCMP members smelled her breath,” the commission wrote.
RCMP commissioner responds
In her response to the CRCC’s findings, the RCMP commissioner said she agreed that Baptiste was racially discriminated against.
While police were justified to surround Baptiste’s home because they believed there was an armed, intoxicated man who had fled the homicide scene, there’s no dispute the next-of-kind notification was handled insensitively and lacked good judgment, Lucki wrote.
Cultural awareness training is mandatory for all RCMP members, she added.
Michelaine Lahaie, who chairs the CRCC, said on Saturday that more will be needed to prevent the discrimination found in the Boushie case.
“However, I take note of the positive steps the RCMP is taking and I hope that this case and the present report can be part of the catalyst for the RCMP to further engage in a necessary process of change,” Lahaie said in a statement to CBC News.
Lucki’s response to the commission report stands in stark contrast to the Saskatchewan division of the RCMP, which looked into the complaint but did not support the family’s allegation of mistreatment.
“RCMP members treated the [family] reasonably, respectfully and courteously,” according to a statement of defence filed in response to a lawsuit launched by the family. The statement denied that officers discriminated on the basis of race “at all.”
RCMP media release caused ‘anguish’
The family also had concerns about the RCMP’s first media release about the shooting.
According to the release, Boushie and his friends “entered onto private property by vehicle in the rural area and were confronted by property owners.” It said Boushie was shot while “other occupants … were taken into custody as part of a related theft investigation.”
The family said the news release painted Boushie as a thief and sowed racial discord in the province.
The CRCC agreed.
“The RCMP’s media releases caused anguish for the family. Although they did not contain inaccurate information, these releases could leave the impression that the young man’s death was ‘deserved’ or that possible property offences that might have been committed by the young man’s friends were of more concern to police than the young man’s death,” the commission wrote.
“This narrative immediately emerged on social media after news of the death came out, which fuelled racial tensions both on social media platforms and in the community.”
Lucki wrote that there were lessons to be learned from how media releases were “written and perceived” and that they could form the basis of a case study for future unconscious bias training.
The CRCC also questioned the optics of two officers attending Boushie’s wake to update the family on the status of the investigation.
Issues found with how Boushie’s friends treated
The CRCC probe looked at whether the investigation was “reasonable” and followed RCMP policies and training.
It made 47 findings related to the investigation, 25 of which found no errors or misconduct. The 22 remaining findings included errors in procedure, communication breakdowns and staffing shortages, but no discrimination “with respect to the gaps in the criminal investigation.”
The commission found issues with how officers treated three of the friends who accompanied Boushie onto the Stanley farm and were arrested for mischief.
The arrests were deemed reasonable, but the way in which officers interviewed the trio was “unreasonable in the circumstances,” even though officers did not discriminate during the interviews, according to the CRCC.
“RCMP investigators were frustrated with what they felt was a lack of co-operation from the three witnesses,” the commission wrote.
“However, the interviewers made little effort to establish trust. Given the historic distrust of police by Indigenous communities, the trauma, shock and chaos of the previous day’s events, the lack of sleep, the lodging in cells and the potentially severe hangovers the witnesses suffered, the commission found that the RCMP interviewers did not reasonably foster a state of mind that was conducive to witness co-operation.”
After they gave their statements, Boushie’s friends were detained longer than is justified under the Criminal Code, the CRCC also reported.
The commission is asking the RCMP to review its policy to address the treatment of non-suspect witnesses held in custody.
Training on witness handling also needed: CRCC
The CRCC also scrutinized how the RCMP handled Gerald Stanley’s wife, Leesa, and his son, Sheldon, who were at the farm on the day of the shooting.
The report said it was unreasonable that four officers — including the sergeant in charge of the initial scene — did not ensure that Leesa or Sheldon Stanley did not discuss the shooting with each other before giving their statements to police.
Sheldon testified during the trial that after Gerald Stanley shot Boushie at close range, but before police arrived, the Stanleys retreated to their house to sit and have coffee in silence.
Leesa Stanley did not testify at her husband’s trial.
The RCMP should provide training on witness handling to the officers involved, the CRCC said.
Lack of communication hampered investigation
The CRCC listed other concerns about the RCMP’s work, some of which came out during trial testimony.
The SUV that Boushie was shot in went uncovered, and rain washed away some blood evidence. The RCMP did not ask a blood spatter specialist to come to the scene.
Experts consulted by CBC News agreed that errors were made but did not conclude it would have changed the outcome of the trial.
The CRCC concluded that discrimination was not to blame when it came to issues relating to evidence handling.
However, it wrote, “The lack of communication between the various RCMP units involved in the investigation of the death of Mr. Boushie led to some of the errors and inefficiencies.”
The commission recommended that the RCMP ensure it has enough staff to work on major crimes investigations in a timely manner. It also asked the Saskatchewan division to consider acquiring a mobile command centre, which “could have proven to be useful in this case and potentially resulted in avoiding some of the shortcomings or omissions that occurred.
The recommendations are not binding.
Family already pursuing civil action
The CRCC probe has taken place against the backdrop of an ongoing civil lawsuit filed by Debbie Baptiste and her family against the Attorney General of Canada, the office that is representing the RCMP in court.
Filed in August 2018, on the second anniversary of Boushie’s death, Baptiste’s lawsuit contained even more allegations about the RCMP members who visited her home on the night of her son’s fatal shooting.
In a statement of claim, the Baptiste family alleged that officers rode toward the home at high speed, shone spotlights on the house and approached with guns drawn — all of which was denied by the attorney general’s office in its statement of defence on behalf of the RCMP.
“RCMP members treated the [family] reasonably, respectfully and courteously,” the statement of defence said.
The Baptiste family also claimed that an officer leaned in to smell Debbie Baptiste’s breath and that an officer checked the microwave after being told Boushie’s dinner was being kept there.
The court file was last updated in May 2020 to indicate that “the requirements for mediation in this action have been met.”
Brian Pfefferle, a Saskatoon criminal lawyer who closely followed the Gerald Stanley trial, said that court update suggests the family and the RCMP completed the mandatory mediation without reaching a settlement.