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By Jesse Winter, Staff Reporter Peter Goffin, GTA
Tues., June 6, 2017
In the hours before Toronto police shot and killed Devon LaFleur, they were informed by his friend that he was carrying a pellet gun, says Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit.
His mother, Rena LaFleur, says officers were also told her son had serious mental health issues and had stopped taking his medication.
Devon LaFleur was wanted for armed robbery and car theft when, on the night of March 4, 2016, he was hit with eight police bullets on a North York street.
The SIU, which investigates deaths, serious injuries or alleged sexual assaults involving police, announced on Monday that no charges would be laid against officers in LaFleur’s death.
In a news release, SIU director Tony Loparco said there was “no doubt in (his) mind” that the shooting was justified.
Devon LaFleur had pointed a pellet pistol that “looked exactly like a real firearm” at an officer, Loparco said.
But LaFleur’s family, who live in Ottawa, say they spent the entire day he died trying to get Devon safely into custody, and care.
“We wanted to make sure that everybody knew that he had a pellet gun and had been off of his meds and that he needed help,” said his sister, Sascha LaFleur.
“(We were) trying to facilitate him getting to a hospital as quickly as possible … If I had known this was the way things would go down, I would have gone and gotten him myself.”
None of the officers involved in LaFleur’s death has been named, and neither the SIU nor any other public body has acknowledged Devon LaFleur’s identity.
The SIU’s policy is not to name victims without the family’s consent.
Rena LaFleur told the Star that her family had asked the SIU not to reveal her son’s name. The family decided among themselves that they would not speak publicly about Devon’s death until after the SIU report came out.
Devon, who lived in Ottawa, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 18, his mother said.
The last time she saw him, a few weeks before his death, he was “doing as well as he had ever been,” she added.
He was being treated by a team of mental health professionals, including a psychiatrist, and was having his medication reviewed on a regular basis, Rena LaFleur said.
But Devon’s father, whom he lived with, told the family that Devon had stopped taking his medication in the days immediately before his death, Rena said, adding that when off his meds, Devon’s behaviour could become erratic and his thinking unclear.
Rena LaFleur, a registered social worker, said police should have approached their confrontation with her son differently, knowing that he had mental health issues and was off his medication.
“Devon (was) my beautiful boy and, from our perspective, he was gunned down by public servants who were hired to serve and protect,” she said.
“I have no illusions that Devon didn’t do something wrong, but he did not deserve to die the way that he died.”
Rena LaFleur said she has read the recommendations made to Toronto police by retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, on how better to deal with people with mental health issues.
But Rena said she is concerned officers are not fulfilling those recommendations, made in the wake of the Toronto police shooting death of Sammy Yatim.
“I think there should be a (police) college like there is with other professions where they can be held publicly accountable for their actions,” Rena LaFleur said.
The SIU has publicly released only a summary of its report on Devon LaFleur’s death. Rena LaFleur told the Star that the SIU revealed to her the full contents of the report, but did not give her a copy of it.
Toronto police did not immediately provide comment for this story.
The SIU’s public summary of the report states that police were aware Devon was in possession of a pellet gun at some point during the day he died.
The summary does not mention his mental health. However, Rena LaFleur told the Star that the full SIU report states that Toronto police were aware of her son’s mental health issues.
The SIU summary refers to the shooting victim only as “a 30-year-old man,” but Devon LaFleur’s family has identified him as the victim in question.
The summary says that, on March 4, 2016, Ottawa police were investigating Devon LaFleur in an alleged armed robbery and car theft.
Rena LaFleur says the family shared details about his mental health with the Ottawa police, along with the fact that a pellet gun, which looked much like a real handgun, had been taken from the family home.
Sascha LaFleur said that the family learned her brother was headed to Toronto to visit his friend Julie Knetsch.
After speaking with the LaFleur family, Knetsch, who in the SIU report is referred to only as “the friend,” called Toronto police, Sascha said.
Knestch told police about Devon’s mental health issues and about the pellet gun, Sascha said.
Knetsch also revealed to officers that Devon was going to meet her near Bayview and Steeles Aves., the SIU report said.
Rena LaFleur said that, according to the full SIU report, Toronto police planned to send plainclothes officers to intercept Devon, but the plan was later changed and uniformed officers in marked police cars were sent instead.
After officers arrived at the rendezvous point, Knetsch and Devon LaFleur pulled up in a taxi, the SIU report said.
Devon got out of the cab and faced police officers with what “appeared to be … a handgun” at his side, according to the SIU.
Officers repeatedly yelled at him to drop his gun, to which he repeatedly replied, “What are you going to do?”
After Knetsch tried unsuccessfully to wrest the pellet gun out of Devon’s hand, he raised his arm, pointing the CO2-powered pistol toward an officer, the SIU summary said.
Three police officers opened fire on him, hitting him with eight bullets, according the summary.
Rena LaFleur said the full report states her son was hit in the face and chest.
No mental health professionals were at the scene, and neither Tasers nor rubber bullets were used, according to the full SIU report, she said.
“If they say that this is an acceptable mental health protocol, I think that’s shameful,” she added.
In a report issued in April, Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Michael Tulloch, who led a recent Independent Police Oversight Review, made 129 recommendations aimed at improving police oversight in Ontario, but said officers should be named publicly only when the SIU lays charges.
Tulloch’s report recommends not publicly naming witnesses to police shootings, but it takes no position on whether victims should be named.
Anthony Morgan, a Toronto lawyer with a specialty in human rights and policing who was not involved in this case, said it is difficult to have “hard-and-fast” rules.
“If the police don’t want to release the names but the family does, the family should have the final say,” he said.
Daniel Brown, the Toronto director of the Criminal Lawyer’s Association, who was not involved in this case, says that the privacy of victims’ families should take precedence over the public’s right to know.
“I also think the family’s desire to protect the identity of the victim ought to be the paramount consideration, especially where the victim’s mental health or medical history would be made public as part of the identification process,” he said.