The police chief of Saskatchewan’s third-largest city has resigned following the release of a scathing investigation by the province’s police oversight agency.
In a report released on Thursday, the Public Complaints Commission (PCC) said two officers in Prince Albert failed to adequately protect an infant boy who died last year and should face discipline.
The commission called the boy’s death a “tragic and potentially avoidable incident.”
Late Thursday afternoon, in the wake of the report’s release, Prince Albert’s police chief Jonathan Bergen announced his immediate retirement, saying some of his decisions “have motivated a very persistent and extraordinary assault” on his character and harassment of his family.
While the embattled police chief alluded to longstanding tensions within the service unrelated to the investigation, he said his decision to leave ultimately stemmed from worries about further losing the trust of the community following the report’s release.
“If I were to accept the responsibilities … to discipline members, or to further investigate supervising members, it could be misrepresented as biased and influenced by the manner in which my family has been treated,” Bergen said in a statement.
The PCC report also highlighted gaps in Prince Albert Police Service (PAPS) policies and procedures.
The investigation was launched, at Bergen’s request, following the death of 13-month-old Tanner Brass on Feb 10, 2022.
The baby was found dead by police around 11 a.m. at a home in the 200 block of 23rd Street West, where the two officers had previously responded earlier in the morning and taken the boy’s mother into custody.
The boy’s father Kaij Brass was charged with second-degree murder in his son’s death. The two officers were suspended from active duty pending the outcome of the PCC investigation.
According to the PCC, despite the fact Tanner “was, at all relevant times, vulnerable and in danger,” the officers never checked on the boy’s well-being.
The commission said its findings were drawn from numerous sources including interviews with police officers, in-car recordings, 911 audio recordings and police station surveillance video.
While the PCC does not refer to anyone by name in its report, including the two officers, the boy and his parents have been previously identified.
According to the commission’s report, an argument broke out between Brass and Tanner’s mother Kyla Frenchman the night before the boy died.
The investigators believe the clash happened after Brass went to a liquor store. The noise from the fight woke up Tanner who began to cry.
During the dispute, Brass allegedly assaulted Frenchman. She left to go to a relative’s home around 3 a.m., the report says.
After discovering her relative no longer lived at the home, she walked in the cold to the city’s RCMP detachment, where “there appeared to be no one in attendance.”
Surveillance footage shows her leaving the RCMP station around 3:30 a.m. after waiting a few minutes by the doors.
Frenchman returned home at 4:30 a.m. and told investigators she found Brass intoxicated with blood on him. She then headed to a neighbour’s to use their phone.
At 5:44 a.m., the report says, Frenchman called 911 saying Brass was intoxicated and that she had been assaulted when she returned to get Tanner and some clothes.
When the emergency call handler asked if she was concerned Brass might hurt Tanner, French became emotional and said “he already does” and that he “hits him when he puts him to bed.”
She told the operator that Tanner was sleeping, according to the report.
The two officers were dispatched, and based on audio recordings, one of the officers was made aware that Frenchman had been assaulted and she was concerned about her son’s safety.
Around 5:50 a.m., the officers each arrived separately outside the home.
Frenchman told the officers she had been pushed down steps. When asked, she said didn’t need an ambulance and that she just wanted to get her baby and some clothes, and then wait for a ride to come from La Ronge — a community located roughly 240 kilometres north of Prince Albert.
One of the officers told Frenchman that she could not stay in the cold with a child. Frenchman informed the officers that the home was in Brass’ name.
At that point, the report says, the officers knocked on the front door. Brass came to the window and refused to open the door. He told police that if Frenchman wanted to leave, she should go.
“[Brass] did not appear intoxicated and [Frenchman] did not want to pursue an assault investigation,” the report says.
The officers felt they had no grounds to arrest Brass and no authority to enter the home. However, the PCC identified this as a serious misstep, saying the officers did not understand the powers they had given the circumstances.
“[The officers] were incorrect in their belief they required a warrant or permission,” the report says.
According to the PCC, the officers “had the authority to enter the residence under the common law duty to preserve life” and they “would have also been justified” in entering the home to help Frenchman take her son and collect her belongings.
The officers also failed to follow PAPS’ policy that prioritizes the “immediate safety of the complainant and any children present” during calls related to intimate partner violence, the report says.
There was a belief that “[Tanner] would be safer in the warmth of the house with his father, than outside in the cold waiting for a ride to come from La Ronge,” according to the report.
Under the mistaken impression they were unable to enter the home, the officers turned their attention to finding a warm place for Frenchman to stay.
However, the task was complicated by the fact that the city’s women’s shelters were “apparently full.”
An offer was extended for Frenchman to spend a “few hours” at the police service’s detention centre and the decision was left up to her, the report says.
The findings of the PCC investigation diverge somewhat from Frenchman’s account of how she came to be in police custody.
An attorney, reading from a prepared statement during a Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations news conference last March, alleged she was taken into custody against her will and that police accused her of being drunk.
The PCC investigators found that one of the two officers suggested listing her as “intoxicated” in order to provide a reason to place her in detention and offered to go and start preparing the necessary paperwork.
This was another failing identified in the report. The PCC investigator found Prince Albert police have no policy around sheltering sober people, and the lack of any clear guidelines places “officers in a difficult position.”
The report says Frenchman travelled to the police station unhandcuffed, resting her hands on her knees throughout the drive.
“It has been stated that [Frenchman] was crying and begging [the officer] to help [Tanner], however, the in-car camera audio and video show that [Frenchman] was calm and there was no conversation,” the report says.
Upon arrival, Frenchman’s stay in detention was “unremarkable and [she] was provided with toiletries, dry clothing and a drink, and appeared to be resting quietly,” the report says, based on a review of video footage.
“It has been stated while lodged at the detention centre, [Frenchman] tried repeatedly to tell PAPS police officers that [Tanner] was in danger, but that they ignored her,” the report says.
“A review of the detention centre and cellblock audio and video does not substantiate this version of events.”
Around 10:45 a.m. police received a call from a man who said he killed his baby. Brass was later arrested following the discovery of Tanner dead inside the home.
The PCC report says while the “compounded failures” of the two responding officers amount to a “neglect of duty,” the Crown is not recommending criminal charges.
“At autopsy, the pathologist was unable to determine [Tanner’s] time of death during the 3 a.m. to 10:40 a.m., window,” the report says.
The PCC also found the officers failed to obtain a statement from Frenchman regarding her alleged assault at the hands of Brass or to take information concerning his “level of intoxication and whether he was safe to be alone” with his son.
Through his lawyer, Brass declined to participate in the PCC investigation.
Another lapse identified by the commission was the officers’ failure to reach out to “street supervisors” who could have provided guidance even though a police interpersonal violence coordinator was not available.
Although there will be no criminal charges, the PCC ruled the officers should be disciplined professionally under the province’s policing legislation.
When speaking to media last year during tearful news conference, Frenchman described about her son.
“Tanner was a happy baby. He always loved to get up in the morning … especially when I turned on the TV and he’d come running as fast as he could,” Frenchman said.
“No woman should ever have to go through this.”
There are currently two other significant investigations underway involving PAPS. Both are related to fatal officer-involved incidents that occurred earlier this year.
The province began an independent review of the police service last fall.
The police service has also struggled with recruitment. Last year it offered a $25,000 hiring bonus for experienced officers who successfully applied.
During a news conference held shortly after Tanner’s death, Bergen revealed that the pair of responding officers had a combined five years of policing experience between them.
When announcing his retirement on Thursday, Bergen said the Saskatoon Police Service has agreed to provide interim leadership while the search for his replacement is underway.
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