An outside force says no criminal charges are warranted in relation to the handcuffing of a woman in a stormtrooper costume outside a Star Wars-themed business in Lethbridge last May.
But Lethbridge police are still facing criticism for how the initial incident was handled — and for the unanswered questions that remain.
On May 4 — referred to as Star Wars Day by franchise fans — Lethbridge police officers responded to two 911 calls reporting a person in a Star Wars stormtrooper costume was carrying a firearm on 13th Street North in the southern Alberta city.
Inside the costume was a 19-year-old employee of a space-themed restaurant nearby, dubbed the Coco Vanilla Galactic Cantina.
Holding a plastic toy gun, the woman was on assignment, waving at pedestrians and suggesting they visit the restaurant to try specials like the Yoda Soda.
That’s when police arrived. What transpired was caught on video and went viral, making both national and international news.
The business was holding a May the Fourth promotion — that’s a pun on the movie franchise’s expression, “May the force be with you.”
After police arrived, the young woman dropped the toy weapon, but police said she didn’t initially comply with their direction to get on the ground.
With weapons drawn, police forced the woman to the ground and removed her helmet. The woman’s boss previously told CBC News that caused a bloody nose, bruising and scratching.
The woman was handcuffed and later released and no charges were laid.
A witness on scene captured the interaction, including the woman sobbing. The video went viral and prompted outrage, including from William Shatner, famed as Captain Kirk on Star Trek, who called for an investigation.
“Rifles drawn for a plastic toy Cosplayer? Didn’t comply right away? Are you blind Chief? Watch the video to see how quickly she complied,” the actor said on Twitter. “This cannot be covered up.”
On May 8, Lethbridge police announced they would hand over the investigation to the Medicine Hat Police Service. Alberta’s police watchdog later said it would review that investigation.
On Wednesday, Lethbridge police said in a release the investigation, which included a review by ASIRT and the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, had concluded and recommended no criminal charges against the officers.
No additional information about the investigation was provided, and inquiries from CBC News requesting more information were not immediately returned.
Lethbridge police said a professional misconduct investigation will now proceed under the Police Act and Police Service Regulation.
‘A lack of transparency’
Tom Engel, a veteran Edmonton defence lawyer, said the statement from the Lethbridge police service lacks context as to why the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service didn’t move forward with criminal prosecution.
“Was there an assault by the officers? Of course there was. They applied force to her, without her consent,” Engel said. “That’s the definition of an assault. But for it to be criminal assault, it has to be something that was not justified — but the burden is on the police to prove that it was necessary and reasonable.”
In Engel’s view, there’s no way that the police could reasonably argue that the force was necessary and reasonable based on the facts that are known.
“You’ve got the handcuffing — why was it necessary to apply that force, those handcuffs? It’s absurd,” he said. “They already know, by the time she’s even on the ground, they know this is a toy. That makes it unnecessary to apply any force, once they know there’s no offence that’s been committed.”
Engel said the incident was compounded by the officers putting the woman in a vehicle, which he said amounted to “a criminal offence of unlawful confinement.”
“So I think that their decision, the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service decision, screams out for a very detailed explanation of how they came to that decision,” he said.
“I think that most members of the public, without any explanation, are just going to chalk it up to a double standard.”
Concern over communication
Bradley Whalen, owner of Coco Vanilla Galactic Cantina, was inside the shop when the incident took place. He went outside and said he watched as she was forced to the ground in her costume.
He said he wasn’t surprised with the outcome of the investigation, given how the investigation has unfolded so far.
“It’s a shame that they wasted all this time,” Whalen said. “Medicine Hat [police] didn’t even have the courtesy yesterday to call me and let me know that the findings were going to be released today.”
Whalen said there was never much communication between police and the business, adding no one from police had reached out to him to apologize.
“They know what they did was not proper and not right,” he said.
Mount Royal University justice professor Kelly Sundberg said that now that no criminal charges are pending, the interests and well-being of the young woman involved should come first.
“We all make mistakes, professionally and in life, and I think that these officers have probably learned their lesson through the process,” Sundberg said.
“But [they need] to ensure that young woman is OK from that very traumatic incident. If that hasn’t happened, that’s a separate issue.”
Lethbridge police did not immediately respond to a request for comment around whether they had reached out to support the woman involved.
Source: CBC News