There is one sad and indisputable fact about Greg Matters, the Canadian Army veteran shot dead by RCMP officers on his farm near Prince George, B.C., last year: he brought a hatchet to a gunfight. Matters was a sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder given to making threats of harm to himself and others. Police were there to arrest him on Sept. 10, 2012, because his ongoing feud with an estranged brother had turned violent. Matters was well known to them. There is a small number of such persons in every rural community (or big-city neighbourhood) who take up most of the police’s time and resources. Even in the wake of a tragedy, defenders of the peace are entitled to every possible deference as the facts are probed.
But the RCMP often seems engaged in burning off a century of goodwill with the energy of an arsonist, and the current coroner’s inquest into the shooting of Matters is providing just another occasion. Independent provincial investigators who looked into the incident for the purpose of deciding whether it was culpable homicide were told by police witnesses that the fatal shots were fired into Matters’s chest. Now a pathologist has told the second inquiry that the bullets definitely entered Matters’s back. This sort of revelation is, unhappily, not surprising anymore.
The RCMP originally came to Matters’s home the day before the shooting because he had dialed 911, hoping to have his brother arrested for violating a peace bond he had secured against him in their ugly real estate dispute. Over a period of about 36 hours the situation gradually transformed into the tableau of an Emergency Response Team assembling on Matters’s property in the hope of arresting him, roughing up his frightened mother a tad, and slowly converging on him in military wear and M-16 rifles as he wandered back and forth holding a hatchet.
This does not, to put it mildly, seem like an ideal way of having handled a troubled combat veteran whose emotional problems began with beatings from fellow soldiers in basic training. (The police had been briefed by Matters’s therapist overnight, long before sending in the ERT.) One suspects that Matters may go down in history as the unexpected fifth victim of the 2005 Mayerthorpe massacre. On that day, in a similar setting, a 47-year-old pot-growing pervert somehow got the drop on four lightly equipped Mounties and won a gun battle with them. It is not hard to understand why local RCMP commanders might now be a lot quicker to call upon overwhelming force when dealing with minor local disputes involving unstable people.
That does not necessarily make it right—and there is a curious wrinkle in the pattern of force escalation in this incident: Matters was actually shot by a K-9 officer, seconded to the ERT, who had his service dog with him. The officer told the provincial investigators that he had intended to deploy the dog to help take down Matters non-lethally, but decided not to because of the hatchet in Matters’s hand.
There has been a wave of sentimentality across the country this month in the wake of an Edmonton police dog’s stabbing by a suspect, but these dogs are not family pets. Their ultimate function is to substitute their lives for human ones. In this case, a police dog remained on-leash as police shot down a man who had been convicted of no crime, who did not even have any accuser besides himself. Fido is not much good as a mere witness.
And speaking of witnesses, a major theme of news coverage of the coroner’s inquest has been the irritatingly large number of times death investigators have recommended that frontline RCMP be equipped with inexpensive personal digital video cameras to record footage of arrests and confrontations. The official report of the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) into the Matters shooting points out—as if providing an excuse in advance for its own faulty conclusion about how Matters was shot—that the ERT members provided conflicting testimony and that “inconsistencies are to be expected . . . in any fast-moving critical incident.”
This being so, why has the RCMP been dragging its heels on personal cameras? Surely the blame for any “inconsistencies” that could be resolved by an inexpensive equipment purchase must be assigned to the force itself. Body cameras are in use elsewhere, and early studies suggest that they reduce the quantity of both citizen complaints against police and uses of violent force by them. Having video from three or four vantage points of the Matters shooting might in itself have already paid for the initial purchase of cameras for the entire RCMP, especially since the IIO report now looks pretty unsatisfactory and may have to be revisited when the coroner (who cannot lay charges) is finished his work.