When police shoot the killers, there are few clues about the killers’ motivations

Last week, three people, including a police officer, were killed in Mississauga, Ont. and Milton just to the west of it. The gunman, Sean Petrie, was then hunted down when he fled to a graveyard in Hamilton where he was shot dead by police.

Two weeks ago, 10 people were stabbed to death on Saskatchewan’s James Smith Cree Nation and another 8 were stabbed in the nearby town of Weldon, Sask.  One of the killers, Myles Sanderson, died within an hour of capture –while he was in police custody. His brother, Damien, had died on the reserve, the day before.

In April, 2020 gunman Gabriel Wortman killed 22 people, including an RCMP policewoman in or near Portapique NS, before he was shot by two cops when he was sitting in his car at a highway gas station.

What do all these tragic events have in common?  In two of the three cases, a policeman was killed. This could signal it’s more acceptable for police to kill a suspect— when one of their own was killed.

In each multiple murder case, we will never know why the culprits did what they did. 

There are always the hints that arise after their deaths.  For example, we heard that the Portapique shooter was depressed and believed world order was going to collapse due to the Covid lock-down.  But why were women his prime targets, including two with whom he had had sexual relations? And why did he kill two women, complete strangers to him, on their way to work? Overall, sixty percent of his victims were women.  Years later, owing to evidence that came out at the public inquiry, there is more than a hint that the killer was deeply misogynist and violent:  he had abused women – including his own partner—for years. However, few abusers actually commit multiple murders. Why did Wortman kill neighbours, including a newly arrived Alberta family of three who lived on his street, and then set fire to his own house and other buildings?

In the case of Petrie, the Mississauga killer, we know he used to work at a garage in Milton, and was fired for what a journalist termed unprofessional conduct.

We know that when men lose their jobs, their responses often turn violent.  Remember when Lionel Desmond shot his family then himself? Petrie stole a car and drove to the garage to kill the owner and a co-worker.  He seriously injured another employee.  Two hours earlier, he hung around a Tim Horton’s restaurant in Mississauga and waited, but for what? Some say he was waiting for any man dressed in a uniform  When he saw Constable Andrew Hong walk in to buy coffee on his break, Petrie shot him. But why did he do it?

In the case of Myles Sanderson, it seems he and his brother Damien went on a killing spree on the James Smith Cree Nation, 218 km from Saskatoon.  The brothers  killed 10 members of a well-known family on the reserve.  CBC reports Myles managed to stab his father-in-law to death, a man he had attempted to murder seven years previous. Sanderson and/or his brother stabbed and killed many in that family on the Labour Day weekend. Then Myles Sanderson drove 29 km to Weldon, and killed another eight people.  Why did the brothers do this?

A spoof on the RCMP, the CBC’s This is That cites Deputy Commander Don Scott, “The horses are the most expensive element of the Ride.” (photo: Canadian Press)

What difference does it make?

You might say, “What difference does it make?”

My response is– it makes a lot of difference.

Without knowing why men kill we can never address the social or family causes, no matter how trivial or how important they are.

When miscreants are killed by police, we can never know why the alleged murderers killed. Journalists have reported endlessly on how the murders happened, how the police responded and how long it took—sometimes critically.  Yet the real question is why.

Why does this happen, and what can be done to stop both the killers and the police that kill them often on sight or within minutes of capturing them? 

This chart tells a story

This chart shows how, in the last two years, police across Canada have killed 50 plus people who seemed dangerous, or who posed a threat, or brandished a weapon at them.  Perhaps two-thirds of these killings look like the suspect’s diminished mental health played a huge role. Or, worse, that the police have no idea the person is in some kind of distress. In some cases the person carried no weapon before he or she was shot by police.  I write “she” to refer to the case of Chantel Moore, an Indigenous 25-year-old mother in Edmundston, NB.  In June 2020,  the local police performed a “wellness” check after midnight.  Woken suddenly, she was frightened and held a knife for protection when she opened her door – it turned out the man who had come to the door was a policeman.  The cop shot her to death, which the police watchdog claimed was “reasonable under the circumstances.”    In very few of the 50 cases listed does it look as if the police confronted the person who was in the midst of committing a serious crime. 

Bad guys vs good guys

When a “bad guy” gets killed – we all heave a collective sigh of relief.  But what kind of relief is it when few deep questions get asked? Usually the only account we hear is that the multiple murders were caused by yet another bad guy who preyed on good guys.

Featured Image: The Menaced Assassin, by René Magritte (Belgian, 1927). Courtesy of MOMA/Scales)

3 comments

  1. When the perpetrator is killed there may be an initial sense of relief but as the article states, we are left with a sense of why and incomplete resolution.

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  2. Excellent points Judy. I always wonder, especially in the case of unarmed perpetrators, why police don’t aim for the knees. The person would be knocked down and could be subdued. Perhaps this is unrealistic but there have to be other options so that we as a society can get some understanding of why these things happen.

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