In a ruling delivered Wednesday, B.C. Provincial Court Judge Jay Solomon found that Const. John Tsonos and Const. Matthew McGuire followed the RCMP’s use of force guidelines when delivering multiple punches, kicks and knee strikes to subdue Alexander Eaton.
“In carrying out their lawful duties to protect the public, police officers must always act on reasonable grounds and use only as much force as necessary; however, sometimes this necessary force will require officers to act aggressively to gain control of a suspect as soon as possible,” Solomon ruled, noting that several police officers, including Burnaby Const. Shaelynn Yang, had been killed in recent months.
“Even a brief delay in acting on a threat could result in grievous bodily harm or death to an officer or a member of the public.”
The incident, which was partially captured on video by a residential doorbell camera, took place on Oct. 10, 2019, after police followed Eaton, who was allegedly driving a stolen car, to a Richmond neighbourhood.
Lawyer Ryan Hira, who defended the officers, said the ruling reflected the fact that officers are sometimes forced to make difficult, quick decisions in the line of duty.
“The decision is quite important for a couple of reasons,” he said.
“One, it confirms that police officers have a dangerous job, and two, police officers are entitled to act aggressively when arresting a fleeing suspect that does not obey lawful police commands.”
The trial heard that when police approached Eaton, he fled on foot and hid in the alcove of a nearby home after first trying to get inside.
Video evidence showed that another officer who wasn’t charged, identified as Const. Avaram, caught up with him and told him nine times at gunpoint to get on the ground; Eaton failed to comply.
When Avram and McGuire tried to approach Eaton took a step back and reached towards a “man purse” he was carrying, at which point the officers took him down.
As police tried to handcuff Eaton, McGuire delivered 16 punches and three knee kicks before officers were able to get ahold of one of his hands. McGuire delivered another knee strike to Eaton’s head before police were able to grab his other hand and cuff him.
During the struggle, Avram also threw several punches, while Tsonos delivered three kicks. Eaton suffered two abrasions, one over his right eyebrow and one on his forehead.
“All of this is captured on a Ring camera. Eaton wouldn’t, despite guns being drawn, get on the ground and show his hands. Instead he tried to figure out how to flee,” defence lawyer Ravi Hira, K.C., told Global News.
“The officers went hands-on and delivered multiple blows. Finally he showed his hands and there were no further blows. I might add, there were no injuries. He had two abrasions, that’s it.”
The trial heard that police later recovered suspected drugs, bear spray and a knife, though not on Eaton’s person.
In his ruling, Solomon found that while the officers actions while going “hands-on” were aggressive, they were “limited, necessary, and certainly not unreasonable or disproportionate,” given Eaton’s previous history of weapons possession, his flight and his attempt to get into the home.
He found the punches and kicks, described as “stunning” blows, were accepted practice under the RCMP’s Incident Management/ Intervention Model, and were delivered with the sole aim of gaining control of Eaton’s hands.
“At the time of his arrest, Mr. Eaton posed an extremely high risk to the public and to the responding police officer. He was a prolific offender with access to weapons,” Solomon ruled.
“I am not satisfied there was any better course of action than the one employed by the arresting officers in this case to go hands-on and get full control of Mr. Eaton as soon as possible.”
While the incident left the officers in legal limbo for several years, the charges against Eaton were stayed.
Court records show that after his release, he continued to have multiple run-ins with police and the legal system, including one encounter in West Vancouver just two months later.