Prime Time Crime

(Prime Time Crime exclusive Oct 22, 2014)

We’re Not Monsters

By Bob Cooper

In my 30 + years on the job, particularly in my years in Homicide, I’ve dealt with a lot of bereaved people.  In most cases we went to their home, often in the middle of the night, and delivered the worst news they would ever hear.  Then we would ask them to hold it together long enough to tell us everything they know about their loved one’s lifestyle, friends & associates, and recent movements.  An outsider would regard this as extremely callous but we had a job to do and sometimes there’s only one way to do it.  We knew they were hurting but we had to know and we had to know now. 


I tried to keep this in mind as I watched the family of Peter de Groot read a long, rambling statement (Danna de Groot statement) on the news Monday evening.  De Groot, 45, had apparently exchanged gunfire with RCMP constables near his property in the Slocan Valley then fled into the bush.  He was the subject of a 4 day manhunt until he was shot and killed in a cabin.  Using words like ‘executed’ they laid all of the blame for the outcome at the foot of the police.


They’re angry, grieving, and want someone to blame.  I get that, and you can’t help but feel sorry for them but a couple of the issues they raise require some explanation and context.  As to what set this tragic chain of events in motion and the shooting itself, I don’t know what happened because I wasn’t there (nor, I’d hasten to point out, were they) so I’ll leave that to the IIO investigation and Coroner’s Inquest. 


Despite the family’s assertion to the contrary, Mr. de Groot was very much a threat and the police had every reason to regard him as such.  Being in the bush he can conceal himself in silence waiting to ambush you while you are rustling branches and breaking twigs as you search for him.  All the ERT guys know is that they’re hunting an armed man who’s shot at the police and now he has the advantage.    


The family’s main complaint is that their offers to go into the bush and speak to their brother and convince him to come out were rebuffed by the RCMP.  I served for several years as a Hostage Negotiator with the VPD Emergency Response Team and although you see it on TV all the time, direct involvement of family members is almost never allowed for a couple of very good reasons.  Every procedure that ERT follows is the result of decades of trial and error and this was almost always found to be the latter.  


Firstly, negotiations can’t begin until the police can contain the individual and control the situation.  Once that occurs they employ a number of ‘de-escalation’ strategies, then they start talking to him.  Negotiators are highly trained to bring a calming, neutral presence to the situation and deliver a carefully crafted message to the subject in order to convince him to surrender.  They have to remain composed, focussed, able to think quickly, and most of all, objective.  Family members are too emotionally involved to do any of that and cannot be trusted to stay ‘on script’ resulting in the subject getting mixed messages which can really be a problem. 



Another dynamic is that the subject may have a different view of the relationship than the family member and just the mention of their name, let alone physical presence, may aggravate the situation.  There have been cases where a family member has been brought to the scene at the subject’s request only to have the subject commit suicide in front of them.  Add to that Mr. de Groot’s mental state, which, by the family’s own account, was deteriorating due to his medical issues and it makes for a situation far too volatile and unpredictable to let an untrained civilian anywhere near. 


The lack of information in the initial press releases and nebulous terms (“interaction” and “affected person”) used by both the police and the IIO didn’t help the optics.  While you don’t want to release a lot of detail at the outset, simply confirming the obvious is not going to harm the investigation & doing otherwise or using clinical jargon looks deceptive.  Plain speaking is best because it’s what the average person relates to.  If you shot someone, say so.  If he killed himself, say so.  You don’t have to go beyond that or get any more specific at that stage but it will calm people’s fears, help quell the rumors that otherwise fill the void, and your agency will look a lot better.  I understand this may be the result of a protocol between the police and the IIO and if that’s the case it needs to be revisited and made more flexible.  


As for the body being left at the scene for 35 hours, conducting these investigations in remote, rural areas comes with its own set of challenges and getting a team of investigators out to a scene that may be hours away, even by air, is just one of them.   In the meantime that scene and everything in it must remain completely undisturbed.  To do otherwise would leave the police open to allegations of evidence tampering and cover-up.  Again, it’s not the police being callous or unfeeling.  It’s just the way it is.   

We’re not monsters and we don’t want to hurt anyone.  The situation these Mounties found themselves in could happen to any policeman and you don’t get to pick the time or place.  It picks you.  If you’re lucky you get a bit of warning.  Often you turn a corner and you’re right in the middle of it.

As I said to a reporter after an officer-involved shooting in Vancouver years ago, ‘in these situations the suspect calls the tune.  All he has to do is put his gun (knife, axe, pool cue) down.  Police officers are not expected to risk their lives to save the lives of people who are trying to kill them.’


Bob Cooper is a retired Vancouver policeman.  He walked a beat in Chinatown and later worked in the Asian Organized Crime Section and the Homicide Squad.



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