An axe-wielding man who was shot by police while experiencing a mental health crisis last year needed medical help "more than anything," Ontario's police watchdog said Friday in announcing the cops would not face criminal charges in his death.
The Special Investigations Unit found that the officers were acting in self-defence when they opened fire on the 44-year-old man, shooting him 11 times outside his home in Exeter, Ont., after breaking down his door so firefighters could tackle a small kitchen fire.
The man had been "advancing" on officers while holding an axe and reportedly looking angry, director Joseph Martino said in his report on the December 2019 incident.
"Though I am satisfied there is no basis for proceeding with criminal charges against either subject officer, the complainant’s death was tragic, made more so by his mental health at the time," he wrote.
"What he needed, more than anything, was medical attention. That, however, was not going to be possible unless immediate steps were taken to reach the complainant, who in his altered state of mind had locked himself in his home and was refusing to come out with a small fire burning in the kitchen."
He said he "cannot fault" the officers for forcing the door open, or for shooting at the man when their attempts to zap him with a stun gun didn't get him to drop the axe.
"By all accounts, the (man) was advancing in a determined fashion, axe in hand, when the first series of shots rang out," he wrote. "Some of the eyewitnesses in the area described the (man's) disposition as angry."
Martino said most witnesses agreed the man appeared to be wielding the axe as a weapon.
The SIU said the man suffered 11 gunshot wounds to his neck, torso and limbs, including once through the heart and a lung.
Martino said the man had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, manic depression and bipolar disorder, and was having a mental health episode when police and firefighters arrived at his home -- something that the woman who called 911 repeatedly flagged to dispatchers.
But even so, Martino said it wouldn't have been reasonable to expect the officers to withdraw from the situation.
"There were many people in the vicinity of the home, including firefighters who had responded to the fire call, which would have given rise to a legitimate concern for their safety," he wrote. "Nor did the officers have the luxury of time to scan the area around them to see where others were located exactly."
The question of how police respond to mental health calls came to the fore earlier this year following the deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto, and D'Andre Campbell and Ejaz Choudry in Peel Region.
The SIU cleared Toronto police of wrongdoing in 29-year-old Korchinski-Paquet's death, which it said happened when she was trying to move from her apartment balcony to an adjacent one while officers were in her home.
The SIU has yet to release its report into the death of the 26-year-old Campbell, but said Martino is currently reviewing the files.
Campbell was suffering from mental illness when he was shot inside his home by Peel police responding to a domestic incident call.
Choudry, 62, was in the middle of a mental health crisis when the family said they called the non-emergency line for help around 5 p.m. Three hours later, Peel Regional Police officers stormed Choudry's home, fired multiple shots and killed him. The SIU is still investigating.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2020.
Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press