Blue Line

Unveiling a tragic reality: An analysis of Canadian police officer murders from 1980 to 2022

December 7, 2023  By Jim Van Allen, Rick Parent and Cathy Parent

Photo credit: MattGush / Getty

The Canadian police community recently mourned the loss of Cst. Rick O’Brien on September 23, 2023, after he was murdered during a drug search in Coquitlam, B.C. A recent study of selected murders of Canadian police officers between Jan. 1980 and Dec. 2022 were evaluated by veteran officers and researchers for factors that contributed to their deaths.

Seventy-seven officers were murdered, in 69 incidents, committed by 86 offenders, accomplices and accessories after the fact. Open-source information, court decisions, official reviews and some interviews of police personnel, identified patterns and contributing causes. The officers were killed under different circumstances by dissimilar offenders with different motives, emotions and stresses. The largest offender motive (47.8 per cent) was to avoid apprehension or detection of a crime, eviction, return to incarceration, or deportation.

The study found that most murdered officers weren’t young or inexperienced—many were considered veteran officers. A significant finding was that police were outgunned, and the majority of officers were killed by high-powered rifles which penetrated their soft body armour. Many officers were fatally wounded above or below the edges of their body armour. These findings emphasize the critical importance of effective cover/concealment.

Of note, two offenders wore ballistic vests, and another offender wore an improvised “workout” vest with inserts which may have offered some protection from police fire.

Other significant findings regarding officer safety included that 16 offenders planned to kill civilians before police intervened, and in another 20 cases, offenders planned to kill police and/or civilians, with many expressing their willingness to “shoot it out” with police. There were also nine crime sprees, or planned massacres where the offenders communicated a willingness to kill police. Officers experienced significant challenges responding to active/rampage shooters who were mobile, prepared and armed with superior firearms.

Sixteen offenders ambushed police and enacted plans to entrap any officer, and in three other cases, offenders targeted a specific officer. One officer was targeted and lured to an attack. In over 20 incidents, officers were killed spontaneously or within minutes of their arrival on scene. These findings suggest a need to increase tactical strategies including approach tactics, use of cover and concealment, and the use of proper protocols for barricaded and/or armed individuals. There is also a suggested need to use coordinated “contact and cover officer roles”.

Officer choices and decisions, and the coordination of police personnel are key to reducing future risk.

It was noted that in 20 cases, police were aware of a high-risk situation prior to arriving on scene, based upon dispatch details about weapons or shots being fired.

Only 17 victim officers drew and fired their sidearms. In 24 cases, officers were ambushed or outdrawn, physically engaged with offenders or attached to vehicles and couldn’t draw their weapons. In 15 cases, officers were aware there was risk in the situation and chose other options or elected not to draw their weapon. A lack of reaction time was a viable explanation in only 25 per cent of the murders. This study could not explain if use of force policies contributed to some officers not drawing their weapons or if officers were reluctant to exercise their authority in comparison to other similar cases. However, one officer who was fatally shot, was previously commended for not using lethal force when arresting an armed and distraught individual. Two officers were off duty and were unarmed. Two officers self-deployed while unarmed.

Officer choices and decisions, and the coordination of police personnel are key to reducing future risk. Some police responses put officers at tactical disadvantages, resulting in tragic outcomes. Situational awareness, critical analysis and assigning additional resources when possible are fundamental to officer safety.

The study noted that in almost 50 per cent of incidents where offenders drove vehicles, the vehicles were stolen or taken without the owners’ consent. These incidences suggest that stolen vehicles are associated with increased officer risk, and an escalation of tactics in these cases appears justified.

Importantly, police officers need to recognize when a person is experiencing a destabilizing life event which may result in a “last resort” perception where violence seems justified as their only remaining option. Losses of relationships, child custody, jobs or financial pressures can seem insurmountable to someone already struggling with life. Negotiation can be an effective strategy and can enhance officer safety in situations where no urgency exists.

An additional review of the case summaries is required to analyze the offenders’ mental state and to determine the significance of motives, attitudes and the significance of an offender’s non-compliance.

The findings of this study indicate that the solutions to mitigating risk in police officer murders are to be found in terms of police policy, enhanced training and tactical responses.

The officers who were murdered acted bravely and heroically. The authors of this study honour their memory and seek to mitigate risk for those who remain a part of the thin blue line.

Author note: The full report is currently being finalized and will be available by early 2024.

Jim Van Allen, M.O.M., is a retired Detective Sergeant of the Ontario Provincial Police.

Rick Parent, Ph.D, is a retired police veteran and published author regarding police shootings and suicide by cop.

Cathy Parent, M. Ed, is a registered nurse (clinician) and educator on complex behaviour issues. She is a researcher and collaborates and co-authors reports on policing issues.

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