The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), an independent body charged with investigating police use of force in the Yukon, has concluded its probe into RCMP officers’ takedown of a man carrying an axe in Whitehorse’s Rotary Park in 2020. ASIRT’s report on the matter, published March 24, found issues with the use of force by the officers involved, but stopped short of suggesting they are criminally liable.
The incident in question took place on July 6, 2020. Three RCMP officers took down a man who was seen carrying a large wood splitting axe through the park. They handcuffed the man and put him in a police vehicle. Members of the public had called the police to report the man carrying the axe, but the police’s conduct also lead to complaints and condemnation from some witnesses.
A Facebook post by a witness published shortly after the incident claimed that an officer tackled the man to the ground after he had dropped the axe. The author of the Facebook post wrote that she had made a formal complaint regarding the officers’ use of force after witnessing the incident. Yukon RCMP leadership promptly defended the officers’ actions and police communications stated that one officer drew a taser and another drew his firearms but neither weapon was used.
Paul Fraughton, who was 33 years old at the time of the incident, was charged with possession of a weapon for dangerous purposes, mischief under $5,000, resisting arrest and breaching a probation order prohibiting him from possessing weapons. The charges against Fraughton filed following the incident at the park were withdrawn in 2021.
ASIRT announced its investigation four days after the incident, on July 10 2020, and arrived in Whitehorse four days later. The result is a 23-page report on the RCMP officers’ use of force detailing ASIRT’s findings. ASIRT spoke with two of the three officers involved, Fraughton, and police and civilian witnesses.
One of a group of seven civilian witnesses who saw the police takedown while they were meeting in Rotary Park reported seeing the man with the axe remove a sheath from it. Members of the group reported seeing him throwing the axe at the ground and hitting the ground with it. Group members reported keeping an eye on him and told ASIRT about their concerns that he might be intoxicated.
The witnesses described police talking with the man, one of them with a gun drawn. The man was described as stumbling as he continued to walk away from the officers. He eventually dropped the axe and raised his hands but kept walking away.
The recollections of the actual police takedown varies among the civilian witnesses. One described two officers jumping into the air and bringing the man down by his neck and pinning him to the ground before kicking him more than four times. Others repeated the description of the kicks while one described “knee strikes.”
“All of the meeting witnesses viewed the officers’ actions negatively,” the ASIRT report reads.
They individually described the officers’ actions as very violent, reported being disturbed by what they saw or that they found the incident unsettling or the use of force uncalled for. One of the members of this group of witnesses filmed the incident on their cell phone, but the ASIRT report doesn’t refer to the video or contain screenshots from it.
An additional witness ASIRT spoke to stated they saw police tackle the man near the sand volleyball courts at the park while driving by on a nearby road, but missed the rest of the incident.
Another group of two witnesses saw the man police would later take down near the MacBride Museum and described him as behaving erratically and swinging the axe around. They later witnessed the takedown in the park and one of them took a cellphone video. Screenshots of this video are presented alongside ASIRT’s findings.
ASIRT’s report states that the video quality is insufficient to determine if the officers jumped on the axe-wielding man to take him to the ground, but after it zooms in it shows four officers and the man on the ground near the park’s volleyball court. The report describes one of the officers on video appearing to deliver knee strikes and the man pinned down by police is also described as flailing his legs.
Two other witnesses, who saw the incident from further away at the nearby spray park saw the takedown but not any strikes. Neither thought the police employed excessive force. The 13th civilian witness interviewed also found the force suited to the circumstances.
The report describes ASIRT’s discussion with Fraughton identified in the report as the “affected person” or “AP.” The report notes that he initially declined to give a statement to ASIRT, but reversed his decision about six months after the investigation began. The report notes he had read the evidence disclosed during the criminal proceedings against him prior to giving the statement.
In the report he described being tackled, kicked and kneed by the officers. He maintains that he wasn’t resisting and that he suffered a black eye and an arm injury but did not seek medical attention.
Two of the RCMP officers who were the subject of the investigation spoke with ASIRT. One did not and also didn’t provide any of the notes or reports they produced about the events of July 6 2020.
“Subject officers, as the subjects of criminal investigations, have the same rights as any other person and therefore are not required to provide anything to ASIRT,” the report reads.
The officers who did speak with ASIRT described the events, their belief that they had the proper grounds to arrest Fraughton, one of the officer’s concerns about Fraughton’s size compared to them and worries about him having a weapon besides the axe and the possibility that he might harm himself or someone else.
Neither of the officers acknowledged anyone striking Fraughton and it is not made clear in ASIRT’s report if they were asked.
In its analysis of the facts ASIRT notes possible contamination of witnesses’ recollections of events due to the four-day gap between the incident at the park and the beginning of the investigation. There was additional delay in speaking to some witnesses such as the RCMP officers involved who were not interviewed until late September 2020.
The report notes that despite this there was no evidence of collusion among the civilian witnesses found. The officers interviewed acknowledged discussing the events with other officers but not in detail.
ASIRT’s report concludes based on the video that the man police arrested was kneed, but not kicked by one of the officers. ASIRT also concluded in the report that Fraughton was not compliant with the officers, but that this may have been partly because his jacket was over his face as a result of the takedown. The report also dealt with the appropriateness of the force used on Fraughton after he had discarded the axe immediately after the officers demanded that he do so.
The conclusion of the report notes the officers were inconsistent on whether they were arresting Fraughton for mischief or for possessing a weapon for a dangerous purpose when they took him to the ground. ASIRT’s report states that for the axe to be considered a weapon under the criminal code, Fraughton would have had to have been using or intending to use it to injure or intimidate someone. The report states that the officers had no proof of this and their quick and forceful actions after Fraughton had dropped and moved away from the axe were not consistent with an arrest for mischief or causing a disturbance.
Despite this issue, the report states that the officers’ use of force can be viewed as proportionate, necessary and reasonable, given the circumstances making them defensible under the law that allows police to use force. ASIRT left any conduct or retraining remedies to the issues up to the RCMP.
-With files from Jackie Hong
Contact Jim Elliot at firstname.lastname@example.org