OHS Canada Magazine


Police officer demoted for using force says he was concerned for his safety

Officer failed to de-escalate tense situation at traffic stop, says inspector

HALIFAX (The Canadian Press) — A Halifax police officer says he considered whether he would ultimately need his weapon to save his life as he dealt with an agitated couple he had stopped on a highway near the city last September.

Const. Matthew MacGillivray took the stand Wednesday — the third day of his appeal hearing before the Nova Scotia Police Review Board.

MacGillivray, a former sergeant and 12-year police veteran, was demoted in January after a Halifax Regional Police disciplinary officer found that he had used unnecessary force and engaged in discreditable conduct when he stopped Graham Labonte and Angela Acorn of Belle River, P.E.I.

The 36-year-old said he carried out the traffic stop according to procedure, but things went awry after Acorn and the much larger Labonte got out of their silver Volkswagen.

“Passengers getting out of a vehicle and walking towards me as well as a driver? I’ve never experienced that,” MacGillivray told the hearing.

He said he had pulled the couple over to simply warn them that they were driving 115 kilometres an hour in a 100-kilometre-an-hour zone.

MacGillivray said he approached the car and stood, as trained, near the post between the driver and rear door of the car. After introducing himself and saying why he had made them stop in a “calm and matter-of-fact” way, MacGillivray said Labonte simply said, “What?”

“The way he said it wasn’t consistent, I thought, with someone who couldn’t hear me; it was more questioning,” said MacGillivray. “I thought it was odd, but I repeated myself.”

MacGillivray said Labonte asked him to come closer, but he refused, saying he wanted to stay at distance for his own safety and for Labonte’s.

“When I said that, he said back to me, ‘For your safety, not mine.’ I thought that was really strange.”

MacGillivray said it was during that exchange that Acorn got out of the passenger side of the vehicle. He said he grabbed her wrist after she continued towards him, ignoring repeated warnings to return to her vehicle, which was pulled over on the shoulder of a busy highway. He told her she was under arrest.

He said as he struggled to control Acorn, who was yelling, Labonte also left the vehicle and started towards him.

MacGillivray said he believed he was in danger of physical harm from the much larger Labonte, so he unbuttoned a retention flap on the top of his handgun holster.

“I thought he was going to pummel me, so I reached back to my firearm. My hand never went to my firearm, and my firearm never left my holster… I simply went to my holster to prep myself if I had to save my life.”

He said Labonte then backed off.

In previous testimony, Insp. Lindsay Hernden said MacGillivray failed to properly communicate or use de-escalation techniques during the incident, which was partially captured on Labonte’s cellphone.

MacGillivray said he didn’t feel he could turn his back safely on two people and walk back to his SUV and was unable to get to his baton or mace while confronting Labonte, because he was still holding Acorn.

The couple has filed a lawsuit against Halifax Regional Police, in which they say they were on their way to an appointment when they noticed a police SUV driving erratically. They were subsequently pulled over, and the suit says Labonte had trouble hearing MacGillivray after he approached their car.

At that point the couple alleges the officer became loud and aggressive and began yelling.

The statement of claim alleges MacGillivray was careless and negligent and that he failed to use reasonable force when he allegedly assaulted and injured the pair.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

MacGillivray told the hearing that had he known the traffic stop was going to unfold the way it did he would never have pulled the couple over.

“Ms. Acorn, when she got out of the vehicle, changed the circumstances of that stop to something I had never encountered before,” he said.

Copyright (c) 2016 The Canadian Press