What we know — and don’t — in Ontario’s deadly Highway 401 police pursuit crash

Click to play video: '‘Someone’s going to get hurt’: Police recordings offer new insight into wrong-way chase on Ontario’s Highway 401'
‘Someone’s going to get hurt’: Police recordings offer new insight into wrong-way chase on Ontario’s Highway 401
WATCH: Police radio recordings are providing new details about the high-speed pursuit going the wrong way on Highway 401 east of Toronto, killing a baby boy and his grandparents. Mike Drolet explains who else was in the vehicle with the victims; what a senior police officer tried to do just before the moment of impact; and the province's rules on police pursuits – May 2, 2024

There are still plenty of unanswered questions surrounding a crash on Highway 401 Monday evening that resulted in the deaths of four people and involved a wrong-way police pursuit.

The province’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which investigates the conduct of officers in serious incidents, including those that have resulted in death, is now probing the incident.

“As part of the SIU’s investigation, we are going to look into the pursuit,” SIU spokesperson Monica Hudon said.

“When it started, where it started, what transpired, what made up the pursuit and taking a look at policies.”

Global News crime analyst Hank Idsinga said that when officers decide whether or not to launch a pursuit, the number one factor must be public safety.

“And there’s a lot unknown in this instance,” Idsinga said.

Story continues below advertisement

Hudon said the incident began at around 7:50 p.m. Monday when Durham regional police officers were notified by an off-duty officer of a robbery at an LCBO in Clarington.

Click to play video: 'Baby, grandparents killed in Ontario wrong-way police chase'
Baby, grandparents killed in Ontario wrong-way police chase

Hudon said officers found a vehicle of interest — a U-Haul cargo van — and followed the van through numerous streets in Durham Region “as the vehicle drove erratically.”

She said the vehicle got on Highway 401 at Stevenson Road in Oshawa in the wrong direction and was travelling westbound in the eastbound lanes.

Video circulating online shows at least one Durham regional police cruiser in pursuit of the van heading the wrong way on Highway 401.

Hudon said shortly after, at around 8:10 p.m., there was a multi-vehicle collision involving at least six vehicles on Highway 401, just east of Highway 412, in Whitby.

Story continues below advertisement

One person in the U-Haul van died and three others in another vehicle — a 60-year-old, a 55-year-old and an infant — also died at the scene. The adults were the grandparents of the infant.

Another person was taken to hospital with serious injuries.

Idsinga said “a lot has to be really dissected by the SIU for this case.”

Breaking news from Canada and around the world sent to your email, as it happens.

“We don’t know exactly what happened in that liquor store,” Idsinga said.

“I’ve heard conflicting reports. Was it a robbery or was it a theft? There’s some information out there that says at some point in time, the suspect pulled out a knife.”

Another question Idsinga had was whether officers were “technically” in pursuit of the suspect vehicle before it headed onto the 401.

Click to play video: 'SIU called in after fatal police pursuit involving death of infant, grandparents on Highway 401'
SIU called in after fatal police pursuit involving death of infant, grandparents on Highway 401

“Had any emergency equipment been activated? Was there an attempt to stop it and it failed to stop? We just don’t know that yet,” Idsinga said.

Story continues below advertisement

“There’s no doubt once it was on the 401, definitely a pursuit was engaged. We’ve seen the footage from it with the suspect vehicle going along the 401 at an extremely high rate of speed, and police vehicles following shortly after with their lights and sirens going.”

A brief email from a Durham police spokesperson Monday night, however, indicated that a pursuit was in progress when the suspect vehicle got onto the 401.

A reporter asked Hudon Tuesday if officers were asked to back off from following the suspect before the van headed onto the 401, but she was unable to say.

“We’ll be getting communications recordings, doing interviews to figure out what happened, when and why,” she said.

She was also asked if she thought the police response was proportional.

“The investigation is in its really early stages and I’m not in a position to speculate on what may or may not have happened or what was or wasn’t appropriate,” she said.

It’s not clear if at any point a decision was made to call off the pursuit.

Idsinga said officers have to continually weigh the risk to public safety during a pursuit to determine whether or not it should continue.

Story continues below advertisement

“Is it that necessary to get this vehicle stopped and pulled over and the occupant arrested to protect the public from something? Or is the risk to public safety too great?” Idsinga said.

“Far too often, these pursuits end up in tragedy or serious injuries or death to people, including innocent victims.”

Daniel Brown, a Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer, said police in Ontario are required by law to weigh the risks to the public before engaging in a high-speed chase.

“And this law requires the police to disengage when the risks outweigh the rewards,” he said.

Brown said police also need to consider alternatives available before starting a high-speed pursuit of a vehicle and need to consider the suspect and the kind of alleged crime involved.

In the case of what happened Monday night, given that the alleged crime was a liquor store robbery, Brown argued that police “put everyone in harm’s way by engaging this particular pursuit on one of Canada’s busiest highways.”

“They simply either underestimated the risk to the public or failed to consider the risk to the public when they engaged in this high-speed chase,” he said.

“It’s a tragic situation and this is something that could have been entirely prevented.”

Story continues below advertisement

Idsinga noted that anyone driving on the eastbound 401 in the area wouldn’t have had much time to react to get out of the way with a vehicle coming at them from the opposite direction.

A motorist, Allen Lee, told Global News he was on Highway 401 on Monday night just about to exit the highway at Thickson Road in Whitby when he spotted the white cargo van headed towards him.

“Right as I was approaching (the) Thickson exit … I see a white van, headlights coming towards me on the shoulder,” Lee said.

“I dodge out of the way, thinking, ‘That was the craziest thing that’s ever happened to me.’ As he passed by me, I am looking in my rearview and I don’t know how many cop cars passed me but maybe between 10 and 20 cop cars were flying by chasing him,” he said.

“I’m going east on 401 east and that guy is going westbound on 401 east,” Lee said. “He had been coming the wrong way on the 401 for some time it seemed.”

Story continues below advertisement

The Durham Regional Police Service issued a statement Tuesday, which noted that the service is limited in what it can say due to the SIU investigation.

“This incident has had a profound impact on our community and our members,” the statement said.

“We understand there are many questions, however there is a legislated process regarding investigations conducted by the SIU that our service must adhere to. DRPS is fully cooperating with the SIU and as such are unable to make a public statement on this incident.

“At this time our thoughts are with those impacted by this tragedy.”

— with files from Gabby Rodrigues and The Canadian Press

Sponsored content