Internal police review clears London, Ont. officer in Justin Bourassa shooting

Justin Bourassa, 29, of Sarnia. Via McKenzie Blundy Funeral Home website

An internal review into the 2021 shooting death of a 29-year-old Sarnia, Ont., man by London police concluded that officers involved followed police process and acted “with true excellence,” members of the London Police Services Board (LPSB) heard on Monday.

The assessment came as London Deputy Chief Trish McIntyre presented the findings of a Special Investigations Unit probe into the death of Justin Bourassa, which found “no reasonable grounds” to lay criminal charges against police in the case.

Following the SIU investigation, police conducted their own separate internal review focusing on police procedures and process, and whether the officers involved followed their training surrounding use of force. The review, she said, “determined that our officers acted with true excellence.”

“When I say that, though, I don’t mean to underestimate the sheer tragedy of this and the impact it has to not only the community, to the complainant who died, his family, all of these things, but to our officers,” she said.

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“I don’t want my synopsis to sound as though it’s simple, because I don’t think these events are simple at all. The review is extensive and we have the utmost confidence that our officers followed process and used their skills with true excellence in this regard and ended up saving an officer’s life, but tragically at the expense of a civilian member.”

The incident, McIntyre said, was a “rapidly escalating set of events that led to lethal force.”

“I struggle to try to articulate what that looks like, in the moment, at the time, the decisions that are made,” she said.

“So our review is done in a thorough, and really, truly a labourious … fashion to really pull that apart step by step, look at what had happened there, what were the actions of our officers, were they justified in doing so.”

Shortly before Bourassa was shot, police had been canvassing the area for suspects wanted in connection with a reported break and enter at a home near Mill and St. George streets, a block west of Richmond Row, read the SIU report, made public over the summer.

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According to the agency, Bourassa was stopped by two officers shortly before 4 a.m. after they observed him crossing to the eastern side of Richmond Street from Mill Street, believing he might be one of the three suspects being sought.

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After following the 29-year-old into a nearby pathway, the SIU said the officers exited their SUV, and told Bourassa that he was being detained as part of the break and enter probe.

According to the report, as one officer approached with handcuffs, Bourassa “jerked free” from the other officers’ grip and ran, taking several strides before he was grabbed and brought to the ground.

The SIU says a London police officer discharged his firearm at a man who was later pronounced dead in hospital. Scott Monich/Global News

The SIU says one officer landed on their chest and “felt the weight of the other parties collapsing on top of him.” The officer described being placed into a “rear naked chokehold” by Bourassa, who maintained a tight grip around his neck for approximately 45 to 60 seconds.

Moments later, Bourassa was shot in the neck by the other officer and quickly lost consciousness, the report said.

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“The (subject official), aware that (witness officer #1) was being choked by the Complainant, had fired the shot at close-range,” the SIU report said.

The officer who had been choked began chest compressions on Bourassa while other responding officers assisted, according to the SIU.

Bourassa was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead at 4:24 a.m., the SIU said. A post-mortem determined the cause of death to be “gunshot wound of the neck and chest,” and that the 29-year-old had not been impaired by drugs or alcohol at the time.

Bourassa was not connected to the break and enter, but police would not know this until after the shooting, the SIU said.

The SIU later determined that the officers were not at fault in Bourassa’s death and did not lay any criminal charges in the case.

In a statement, the agency said its director, Joseph Martino, concluded that “the evidence fell short of a reasonable conclusion that the subject official acted precipitously and without legal justification when he decided to meet a lethal threat to the other officer’s life with a resort to lethal force of his own.”

Martino added that “uncontested evidence” was that Bourassa had the officer in a chokehold, and that the officer was beginning to lose consciousness when the other officer shot his firearm.

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“In the circumstances, I am satisfied that the (subject official) fired his weapon at the Complainant with the intention of protecting (witness officer #1) from a reasonably apprehended assault.”

In all, less than two minutes passed between the time Bourassa first interacted with the officers to when he was shot, the report says.

A city surveillance camera at the intersection of Richmond and Pall Mall streets captured the officers’ SUV disappear into the pathway at 3:49:36 a.m. At 3:51:01 a.m., a “shots fired” call was sent over the radio. The shooting itself was not captured on video.

In a statement released after the SIU report was made public, Bourassa’s family questioned why no other form of intervention had been used.

“There was no evidence of other forms of intervention such as taser, pepper spray or baton,” Bourassa’s parents, Lorraine and Jean-Marc, told Global News.

“We are disturbed at the short timeline from the first encounter to Justin’s death, which is under two minutes.”

The officer who shot Bourassa declined to be interviewed by the SIU and did not authorize the release of his notes, as is his legal right.

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As a result, Martino wrote it was unclear whether non-lethal force had been used, and that it was “difficult to assess what if any thought he gave to these tactics.”

McIntyre noted Monday that “everyone co-operated” in the internal review.

A report by the London Free Press late last year revealed the same officer had also been cleared by the SIU in a separate shooting months earlier involving a suspect armed with knives on Dufferin Avenue.

A coroner’s inquest will be held into Bourassa’s death, however it’s unclear when one will be called. Such inquests are mandatory when a death aside from natural causes occurs while a person is in custody or being detained, the province says.

— With files from Amy Simon and Sawyer Bogdan

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