A coroner’s inquest will probe the circumstances surrounding the 2015 police shooting death of 20-year-old Kitchener man Beau Baker. The decision announced Wednesday by deputy chief coroner Dr. Reuven Jhirad follows a Star story last month that highlighted the initial finding by the coroner’s office that an inquest was not required.
After having faced roadblocks at every turn in trying to find out the identity of the officer who killed her son, the inquest decision means Beau’s mother, Jackie Baker, should finally know his name.
“I don’t know how I can forgive the cop who killed my son until I know who he is,” she said Wednesday.
Officers have been identified and testified in public at every recent coroner’s inquest probing a police-involved death. In fact, an inquest is often the only avenue for families of people killed by police to know the identity of the officer responsible.
At the inquest earlier this year examining the circumstances around the 2014 police shooting death of Jermaine Carby in Brampton, Const. Ryan Reid, who shot and killed Carby, arrived in court accompanied by security, and was quickly whisked away after his testimony.
Jackie Baker said she’s hoping all the facts of the case will be aired in public at the inquest, and that recommendations from the jury could lead to possible policy changes to prevent similar deaths in the future.
For her, the thought of seeing the Waterloo Regional Police officer testify is daunting.
“It’s gonna kill me,” she said. “We want the truth to be out in public. Seeing the officer for the first time, I’m not sure how I’ll react. My son had to look at him in the eye before he died. It’s going to hurt, it’s going to hurt.
“I know everybody’s made it all about ‘what’s his name, what’s his name.’ But he also needs to be held accountable. Period. As Beau’s mom, of course I need to know who killed my son. And doesn’t everybody deserve to know that this person, who shot seven bullets, hasn’t answered any questions to the public?”
Waterloo police Chief Bryan Larkin said in a statement Wednesday that the force respects the decision to call an inquest.
“Inquests provide society an important opportunity to review community-wide systems. They allow for recommendations that enhance our society,” he said.
“Any death is a community tragedy and we hope that these processes can bring some peace for all involved.”
Beau Baker, who had mental health issues, was shot in April 2015 after reportedly advancing on police with a knife outside his Kitchener apartment building.
Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, declined to lay criminal charges against the unnamed officer last year, although the full report, like all SIU reports, is being kept secret.
Waterloo police’s internal review of the incident, mandatory after an SIU investigation, is also secret. The force said it is refusing to name the officer due to safety concerns.
Jackie Baker had also turned to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, the agency that investigates complaints about police conduct, but said she has been told they will not release the officer’s name due to an order from the head of the OIPRD.
Jhirad, the deputy chief coroner, said in an interview Wednesday that he could not comment on the specifics as to why an inquest wasn’t called in the first place. That decision had been made by the regional supervising coroner at the time.
Following the Star story, Dr. Dirk Huyer, the chief coroner for Ontario, said his office would review the decision not to call an inquest. Jhirad said the inquest advisory committee, whose membership includes regional supervising coroners, looked at the material and concluded that an inquest should be called.
He said he didn’t know if the committee had been consulted prior to the initial decision not to hold an inquest, but confirmed that no meeting to review the material was held at the time.
Jhirad also said he couldn’t confirm that the officer will definitely appear at the inquest, but said that the probes try to have anyone with important information about the death come forward to give evidence.
“Generally, I can say that in any incident, the goal is to make sure the jury has a fulsome amount of information, as many direct people as possible,” he said. “Obviously, the goal is to have all these people involved.”
The initial decision not to call an inquest was controversial, as most police-involved deaths have been probed at inquests, and it had advocates calling for all such deaths to lead to mandatory inquests.
Some deaths, including those on construction sites, lead to mandatory inquests under Ontario’s Coroners Act, but a police shooting doesn’t automatically require such a probe, according to the coroner’s office.
However, inquests are mandatory if the person is deemed to have died while detained or “in the custody of police,” according to the Coroners Act.
Coroners in some parts of the province have determined in the past that a person shot by police is detained, and therefore their death must lead to a mandatory inquest.
Huyer, the chief coroner, acknowledged that interpretations vary across the province because there is no clear legal definition for “detained” and “in the custody of police,” and that it continues to be a subject of discussion at his office.
For Jackie Baker’s lawyer, Davin Charney, the decision to call an inquest should have been an easy one. As far as he’s concerned, Beau Baker was detained as soon as the officer drew his weapon.
“It seemed to me all along that an inquest was mandatory,” he said. “And, hopefully, the coroner’s office realizes that it’s mandatory.”
While glad that an inquest is being called, Charney said he remains concerned that the jury’s non-binding recommendations will simply be shelved afterward.
He also highlighted the fact that while other parties at inquests, including the police, have access to lawyers paid for through tax dollars, families of individuals killed by police do not.
That’s because the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services only provides legal funding for families of victims of crime at inquests. Most police shootings do not lead to criminal charges.
“Therefore, the family can’t participate in an inquest on a level playing field,” Charney said. “So I’m concerned that the process is not going to be fair.”
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