Officers not facing charges after man lights himself on fire during interaction with police in Mississauga: SIU

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The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) says that Peel Regional Police officers will not be facing any charges in connection with an incident that involved a 67-year-old man lighting himself on fire—and being tasered while ablaze—in Mississauga. 

According to the SIU, police arrived at the man's motorhome on Sevenoaks Drive on April 10, 2020, to serve him with a court-ordered restraining order that mandated that he could not come within 500 metres of his wife. 

The SIU says the man initially assumed that officers were there to check on his quarantine, as he had recently returned from the United States and been ordered to self-isolate. The report says that when officers asked the man to leave, he demurred and was told that he could be arrested for not cooperating. 

According to the report, the man became distraught, locked the door of his motorhome, doused himself in lighter fluid and threatened to light himself on fire. The report says the officers attempted to defuse the situation but were unsuccessful. 

The SIU says Tactical Rescue Unit (TRU) officers started arriving at the scene shortly before 2:00 p.m. and began to cordon off and evacuate the area. The man's wife and the couple's two sons were also evacuated from the family home. 

The report says an officer spoke with the man while he held a BBQ lighter and a container of lighter fluid. Shortly before 2:30 pm, another TRU officer with specialized training in negotiation took over and reportedly tried to peacefully resolve the standoff. The report says the man, fixated on anger at his wife, indicated that he had tried to commit suicide six months prior and that "present events would not end well." 

The report says that by about 4:10 p.m., after consultations with a forensic psychiatrist, the commanding officer deemed the man to be at high risk of self-harming and approved a plan to storm the motorhome. The SIU says that after a minute or two of difficulty, an officer breached the door and TRU officers rushed inside. At the same time, firefighters broke windows on the driver's side of the motorhome and pumped water into the interior in an attempt to douse any possible blaze.

The report says the man locked himself in a bathroom and lit himself on fire with the BBQ lighter when the officers entered the room, engulfing his upper body in flames. 

From the threshold of the bathroom door, the commanding officer discharged his CEW (taser) three times and then stepped back to allow firefighters through. 

The report says the man was doused with water as he ran from the bathroom to the bedroom and plopped front first onto the bed. Two other officers reportedly deployed their CEWs at the man in the bedroom before he was handcuffed and escorted outside the motorhome.

Joseph Martino, director of the SIU, said he is "cognizant of certain evidence that it was a CEW discharge that set the [man] on fire," but is unable to place any weight on it due to eyewitness evidence that suggests the man lit himself on fire after openly threatening to do so.

The man was subsequently treated by paramedics at the scene and then rushed to hospital for treatment of his burns.

In the report, Martino said the SIU examined whether the police were in any way responsible for the man's injuries and if they used excessive force in apprehending him. 

As for the multiple tasing incidents, Martino said officers feared the man was armed with a knife, although no knife was found. 

Martino said officers "exhausted every reasonable opportunity" to de-escalate the situation and bring it to a peaceful resolution and that breaching the home was justified under the circumstances. 

Martino also said that while the delay in breaching the door bought the man extra time to make his way to the bathroom and plan his next steps, it's not clear if a faster breach would have prevented the incident. 

As for whether it was reasonable to tase the man while he was on fire, Martino said that given the potential of CEWs to cause a fire in the presence of an accelerant, their usage before the man was in flames would have weighed against the officers in a criminal negligence analysis.

"I am satisfied that the officers who discharged their CEWS…were acting within the confines of their duty when they moved in to assist in the [man's] apprehension," Martino wrote. 

"Considering the existence of the restraining order and the [man's] threats to light himself and his motorhome on fire, there were sufficient grounds for [his] arrest. With respect to their CEW usage, each officer indicated that they discharged their weapons fearing that the [man] might be armed with a knife. While no knife was recovered on an open surface within the motorhome by the SIU, the evidence is clear that in the moments prior to the officers' entry, [an officer] had advised team members that he had seen the [man] in the possession of a knife." 

Martino said that given the highly charged and volatile situation the officers were facing, he is unable to reasonably conclude that the officers acted excessively when they discharged their CEWs. 

"For the foregoing reasons, there are, in my view, no grounds for proceeding with charges in this case, and the file is closed."

The SIU is a civilian law enforcement agency that investigates incidents involving police officers where there has been death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault.

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