Edmonton judge says police retaliated against driver during arrest following high-speed chase

Benedict Richards knew he was in a no-win situation. After a nine-minute high-speed chase, he was trapped behind the wheel of his immobilized car. 

One police officer was in front of him and another behind. Both were pointing their pistols at him. 

Then there was the constable with the police dog next to the driver’s door yelling at him to show them his hands. 

As soon as he complied, police dog Finn bit Richards’s left arm. 

Richards screamed and tried to pull his arm away. The police dog would not let go. 

As officers pulled him out of the vehicle, Richards said he was kicked in the ribs at least twice and possibly a third time. Simultaneously, he said he was punched in the face five times. 

Richards suffered seven broken ribs and a punctured lung that required emergency surgery. 

The dog bites to his arm needed stitches. The punches to his face caused a loss of consciousness, bruising and chipped teeth. 

Benedict Richards required a number of stitches after his encounter with police dog Finn. (Court Exhibit/Edmonton Police Service)

Last week Richards, 34, was sentenced by a provincial court judge for the 2018 incident after pleading guilty to flight from police, dangerous operation of a motor vehicle and failing to keep the peace and be of good behaviour.

Judge Donna Groves called Richards’s crimes serious, but she criticized police for excessive use of force during the arrest and their testimony during the trial. 

Despite a request from the Crown for an 18-month sentence, Groves sentenced Richards to just three days. After a year in custody at the Edmonton Remand Centre, he was released from the facility the day he was sentenced.

“This sentence recognizes Richards’s guilt while attempting to send a message that such police misconduct cannot be tolerated,” Groves said in her sentencing decision. 

‘Clear message’

Defence lawyer Amy Lind said she thinks the three-day sentence should send a strong signal to the Edmonton Police Service. 

“I think it sends a clear message that this type of physical confrontation by the police will not be accepted,” Lind said. “I think it also sends a message that you can’t come to court as a police officer and try to justify your actions after.” 

The canine officer involved in the arrest described Richards’s injuries as “minor” in his control tactics report that was entered as an exhibit at the trial. Const. Nick Leachman wrote that Richards would likely need stitches and outpatient treatment for a sprain, adding that the physical strikes had been “ineffective.”  

The top-ranking officer at the scene made no handwritten notes about the incident. At the time, Adam Toma was the acting Staff Sergeant in the Edmonton Police Service’s downtown division foot patrol. A few days later, Toma filled out a report after he found out about Richards’s injuries.

According to a written decision from the judge, his report failed to mention all the use of force he had used — including putting his foot on Richards’s back and head. Toma listed Richards’s injuries as “disabling,” requiring hospitalization. 

‘These guys are probably going to shoot me’

Richards’s nightmare began just before 8 p.m. on June 7, 2018, in downtown Edmonton when he turned his Pontiac G6 into an alley north of Jasper Avenue between 112th and 113th Street. 

Richards was driving without a licence or insurance, so he panicked when he spotted two officers on bicycles in the alley. 

“I didn’t see him until the last second,” Richards told CBC News. “So I did try to swerve to miss him and I clipped his front tire.” 

There was minor damage to the front of the constable’s bicycle after it was clipped by Richards’ vehicle. (Court Exhibit/Edmonton Police Service)

According to an agreed statement of facts, the officer was not hit and managed to land on his feet. There was minor damage to the bicycle tire. Richards sped away.

In an interview last week, Richards said he operated on instinct. 

“All I could think was these guys are probably going to shoot me. It just happened so fast. I just tried to get away.” 

The officers on bicycles radioed for help. Soon Richards was being followed by two police cars. 

The high-speed pursuit lasted for nine minutes on busy central Edmonton streets. According to the agreed statement of facts, speeds reached as high as 170 km/h.

Richards ended up in a Delton cul-de-sac where he collided with a motorhome and struck two cars before crashing through a fence and careening through a backyard and over children’s play equipment. 

Richards drove through the fence and backyard of this Delton home where a child had been playing only 20 minutes earlier. (Court Exhibit/Edmonton Police Service)

The court document states that only 20 minutes earlier, a toddler had been playing in the backyard.

Richards told CBC News that as a father of two, he’s “completely ashamed” of his actions that night. 

“I told the judge that I did not feel right about what I had done there and that I was sorry,” Richards said. “Despite whatever the cops did to me after, I felt badly for the whole situation that took place there that day.” 

‘Disproportionate, unnecessary and unreasonable use of force’ 

According to the agreed statement of facts, Const. Leachman deliberately hit Richards’s car to bring the pursuit to an end.

Richards’ car sustained damage during the police pursuit before the vehicle came to a stop wedged up against a cement median. (Court Exhibit/Edmonton Police Service)

Judge Groves found that the canine officer released police dog Finn to attack Richards within seconds of his vehicle coming to a stop. She also determined it was done without warning and without telling Richards he was under arrest, both contrary to EPS policy. 

Police dog Finn with his handler Const. Nick Leachman as shown on an EPS canine trading card. (Edmonton Police Service)

“Based on my findings, the deployment of the police dog was premature and the kicks and punches inflicted on Richards upon being removed from the vehicle were gratuitous and meted out in retaliation for hitting one of their fellow officers,” Groves said in her written decision.

She called the use of force “disproportionate, unnecessary and unreasonable” and said Richards’s charter rights had been violated. 

Richards’s lawyer hopes the public will be shocked by the case. 

“People should be shocked and surprised because we should not be tolerating it,” Lind said. “I don’t think we want to believe that police are causing this type of injury to persons. To be fair, most of them are not.” 

Lind said she planned to ask the police chief to review the judge’s decision and consider laying assault charges against the officers who were involved in Richards’s arrest. 

An EPS spokesperson said the case has already been thoroughly reviewed and investigators determined no disciplinary or criminal charges would be laid. 

“The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service argued the responding police officers applied force appropriately in the face of a very dynamic and dangerous situation,” Cheryl Voordenhout wrote in an email.

“The court’s decision also notes [that] police officers have to make split-second decisions, with only the information that is immediately available to them.”

Asked if the case would be revisited in light of Judge Groves’s findings, Voordenhout replied that there were no plans to do so. 

“There is no new evidence that would change the outcome of the investigation.”

As Richards attempts to put his life back together again, he said he’s left with a profound sense of unfairness. 

“I don’t feel that police officers should be getting away with that,” Richards said. “We’re not fighting a UFC battle here. We’re trying to keep the streets safe.

“It takes away the whole purpose of policing if you hurt somebody.” 

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