• Hunter Cresswell

Moms question police response to air gun incident

On Nov. 7 around 9 p.m., a Gatineau Hills mother got the call that would worry any parent: one from the cops to say they had detained their kid. Luckily, the MRC des Collines Police officer assured her that her 13-year-old child wasn’t in trouble, but needed to be picked up from the Centre Wakefield-La Pêche immediately.

The mother lives outside of Wakefield, so when she arrived at the community centre about 20 minutes after that call, she was shocked to see her child still detained in handcuffs, despite not being “in trouble” nor found to be in possession of alcohol, drugs or weapons.

She and another Gatineau Hills mother have questioned the officers’ use of force when responding to the incident earlier this month at the community centre. Since both their children are minors who were involved in the incident, their names are being left out of this report. For clarity, the mother mentioned first will be mother 1 in this story and the other will be mother 2.

Different styles of airsoft, BB, and pellet pistols that the city of Gatineau Police included in a press release about an incident involving an air gun in early November. Sometimes what people consider toys look like real weapons. An image of the replica Beretta airsoft pistol that MRC des Collines Police reportedly confiscated at the Centre Wakefield-La Pêche on Nov. 7 has not been released. Images courtesy Gatineau Police

According to the MRC des Collines Police Sgt. Martin Fournel, around 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 7 officers responded to an attempted armed robbery reported at the community centre. He said a youth brandished a pistol while trying to steal a bike.

Officers responded to the community centre and contacted the suspect who admitted to having the gun, the spokesman said. The officers drew their weapons, ordered the suspect and three other children, who were with the suspect at that time, to the ground, and handcuffed and searched them all. Officers found an airsoft pistol – which uses springs or compressed air to fire plastic BBs in a competitive combat sport similar to paintball – and BBs on the suspect, Fournel said.

The gun was confiscated, parents were contacted to pick up their children and the child who had the gun, according to police, was arrested but released to his parents at the scene. He faces possible charges of possession of a weapon for dangerous purposes, carrying a concealed weapon and armed robbery.

The Low Down contacted MRC des Collines Police Yves Charette for an interview about the incident, but he was unavailable before the publishing deadline. The Low Down will be interviewing him later this week, for a follow-up to this story in the Dec. 2 edition.

Since he was unavailable, The Low Down contacted a local Ontario criminal lawyer and an RCMP guns and gangs firearms analyst, asking them to weigh-in on the events.

Mother 1

Mother 1 told the Low Down that she pulled up to the Wakefield community centre to see her child sitting outside the community centre with the two other detained children under the watchful eye of an officer with cop car headlights shining on them.

After she identified herself and her child, she was shocked when an officer said her kid needed to be freed from handcuffs. Just 20 minutes ago she was told over the phone that her 13-year-old wasn’t “in trouble.” She asked the officer why her child was still cuffed, but she said the officer just responded with, “Well, yeah,” and an explanation about “securing the scene.”

Later, she said her child described the police pointing guns at them and being ordered to lie on the ground, handcuffed and searched.

“They said [the officers] were not very nice, they were rough,” she said, using the pronoun “they” to prevent identifying her child’s identity.

It was some time before the three handcuffed kids were even allowed to sit up, she said, and that was only after her child asked the police to be allowed to do so.

Mother 1 said she’s no expert, but questions the necessity of the guns-drawn response and keeping the three other children in handcuffs even after they were searched and didn’t have weapons.

About what the suspect allegedly did, she called it a “bad decision” on the part of the child.

“Wakefield isn’t going to hell in a handbasket. Kids aren’t carrying guns around,” she added.

Despite the experience her child described, she said she wouldn’t be taking legal action and would use it as a learning moment for her child.

“The violence from the police and the adults on social media was much more damaging [than the suspect’s alleged action],” she said, referring to both the police response and harsh criticism about the incident on social media.

Mother 2

Mother 2 also had her 13-year-old child handcuffed outside the community centre for about a half-hour and filed a complaint with the Québec Comité de déontologie policière — the provincial police ethics committee.

“Why did a witness get handcuffed and detained for so long?” she asked. “…That’s potentially dangerous to pull guns, especially on children because they could get scared and run.”

When The Low Down put the issue to both the RCMP analyst and criminal lawyer, both of whom requested that their names be left out for professional reasons, neither sounded surprised to hear that the police responded the way they did, nor that people immediately around the suspect were also detained.

“It’s a fraught area for policing,” the analyst said.

Even a firearms expert can have trouble telling the difference up close or at a distance between a real firearm and an air gun that’s manufactured to be an almost-exact replica of a real gun. And even if it is an airsoft gun, he said he’s seen cases where people have modified airsoft guns to fire real bullets.

According to the MRC des Collines Police, they responded on Nov. 7 as an incident involving a possible gun and acted accordingly.

“I will be very clear on this. Officers ordering suspects to the ground at gunpoint and using restraints on subjects is not ‘for show’ ever. It’s the highest level of officer response other than actually discharging your service weapon,” the analyst said.

The Canadian Firearms Act treats firearms and air guns, which are differentiated by the velocity of the projectile – bullet, BB, or pellet – leaving the barrel and the energy used to propel that projectile, differently — that is until an air gun is used outside of its intention for target shooting or the combat sport of airsoft, the analyst explained. Then the punishment for that improper use can be the same as if a real gun was used.

“[Airsoft guns are considered] exempt firearms if used as intended. Once you use it to intimidate, threaten or coerce, that’s when the firearms laws come into play,” the analyst said.

“Police take any sort of gun call extremely seriously,” the lawyer said about the police response.

But did all the kids need to be handcuffed for so long?

The firearms analyst said the other option the officers had that evening was to take all four kids down to headquarters to wait for the parents to pick them up. This is because they could be considered “accessories after the fact” to the alleged crime of armed robbery.

Police can keep someone in handcuffs as long as they have reasonable grounds to suspect a person is connected with a crime and they have reason to detain them, the lawyer agreed, adding that this sounds “loose” because it has to cover a range of situations officers can face during duty. The test is called “reasonable necessity,” he said.

“It’s probably a close call if they were permitted to handcuff them at all …. I think the time involved sounds long,” he added.

And the longer someone is handcuffed, the more difficult it is to justify that length of detainment, the lawyer said.

“It doesn’t take that long to be pat-down searched,” he added.

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