A family is searching for answers after a 19-year-old man was fatally shot by Winnipeg police on Sunday.
On New Year’s Eve, Winnipeg police were called to an apartment building on University Crescent for a report of an armed man who was acting erratically.
Officers say they were confronted by an armed man at the suite and that during the encounter, an officer shot him. The man was taken to hospital in critical condition and later died of his injuries.
Jean-René Dominique Kwilu, a lawyer for the family, has identified the man as 19-year-old Afolabi Stephen Opaso, an international student from Nigeria who was studying economics at the University of Manitoba.
He says the family is now looking for answers.
“Our concern, the family’s concern is how a call for a mental health crisis situation would end up in a death sentence with a loved one being shot dead,” Kwilu told Global News.
Kwilu says they believe Opaso was in the midst of a mental health crisis, and more adequate mental health resources should have been deployed.
“Those are the questions the family has. They’re just devastated, because they send their son here to study, and now he’s returning home in a coffin,” Kwilu said.
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“And it wasn’t like it was any criminal activity or something like that. He was just having a mental episode — a call for help — and this is what happened.”
It’s one of three police shootings in Winnipeg in just over a month. On Dec. 29, police fatally shot a man at a Furby Street apartment building after an hours-long standoff involving hostages. On Nov. 28, a man was fatally shot by police after allegedly trying to flee a traffic stop and pinning an officer with his vehicle near Pembina Highway and Dalhousie Drive.
Bobby Baker, a board director with the National Police Federation and staff sergeant with the Manitoba RCMP, says use of force is always a last resort for police.
“Policing can be very dangerous, but our officers are trained for months and months with de-escalation. Throughout their careers, everything is based on de-escalation. Officer presence and verbal contact with people, that’s the nature of our business and it’s very rare that we have violent encounters with people.”
Body-worn cameras could assist in police shooting investigations
Baker says body-worn cameras could also be useful in police shooting investigations.
“Body-worn cameras, they’re not pointed at the police officer, they’re pointed at the involved persons — so to see what they’re doing and it really justifies the actions that they take,” Baker said.
“So the public or investigators or the courts can see exactly why police did what they did, because what we do is often in a fraction of a moment.”
Christopher Schneider, a sociology professor at Brandon University who has focused much of his research on police body-worn cameras, says while the body cameras can help, they don’t guarantee full transparency.
“Police have an on and off switch on body-worn cameras, and so that, in and of itself, negates the idea of true accountability,” Schneider told Global News.
“Police officers can forget to turn on their body-worn cameras, they can maliciously not turn on body-worn cameras, or in situations where something might happen quickly, where they’re pursuing a suspect, maybe they pull out a weapon or do something like that, the officer might not take a moment to turn on their body-worn cameras, which I think people could understand why that circumstance.”
Schneider says in other jurisdictions, there are also concerns over police officers being allowed to view their footage and ensure their statement is consistent with the footage. He says there needs to be public input on policies surrounding body-worn cameras.
“If the body-worn cameras are going to be rolled out, I think the public needs to be actively involved in the conversations and the development of the policy around the use of the devices,” he said.
“It should be the public that gets to decide and define what police accountability means and what transparency means.”
While body-worn cameras have yet to be introduced in Manitoba, it is a topic for the Winnipeg Police Board. Board chair Markus Chambers says he will be raising the issue with the justice minister at an upcoming meeting.
“Our government’s priority is to make sure that every Manitoban is safe and treated fairly by the justice system. Body-worn cameras can be part of that equation, to increase transparency to protect everyone involved in police interactions,” Justice Minister Matt Wiebe said in an emailed statement to Global News.
“As they are implemented by police services across Manitoba, we are ready to help ensure that costs and processes associated (with) evidence disclosure and privacy are supported.”
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