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Inquiry: ‘I was hoping he would drop his weapon,’ SQ officer testifies

Riley Fairholm was pacing from side to side and seemed to become more aggressive before he was shot by police, SQ Sgt. Wallace McGovern said.

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The police officer who attempted to communicate with 17-year-old Riley Fairholm minutes before he was killed testified on Tuesday that he tried to convince the teen to drop his gun, but that Fairholm continued waving it around while moving closer to police.

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Fairholm was shot in the head by a Sûreté du Québec officer in an abandoned parking lot in the Eastern Townships municipality of Lac-Brome just after 1 a.m. on July 25, 2018, about a minute after police arrived on scene. It was later discovered the teen was mentally distraught, that he had called 911 himself and that his weapon was a pellet gun.

A coroner’s inquest into Fairholm’s death began with testimony by his mother at the Sherbrooke courthouse on Monday. On Tuesday, Coroner Géhane Kamel heard from three of the six SQ officers who participated in the intervention.

“I was hoping he would drop his weapon, and I knew that there were only three outcomes,” said SQ Sgt. Wallace McGovern, who testified first. “I knew that he would either drop his weapon, he would start shooting at us, or the way that he was acting and pointing towards us … somebody would stop the threat.”

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McGovern testified that Fairholm, who was pacing from side to side, seemed to become more aggressive and was moving closer to police.

“He was moving towards us at a considerable rate, more than I felt comfortable with,” he said.

Another SQ officer, who is scheduled to testify on Wednesday, then shot Fairholm, according to various testimonies.

SQ agent Geneviève Racine, who was in the same car as McGovern during the intervention, testified she was behind her car door pointing her gun at Fairholm in centre mass when two officers in the car to her right exited the vehicle and communicated with Fairholm before one shot at him.

That’s when Fairholm became a victim instead of a suspect, Racine said.

“There are certain facts that let me believe that the person was gravely injured,” she said. “To the best of my memory, it was obvious he had a head injury, and I asked one of my co-workers to get me a first aid kit. … I tried to stop the hemorrhaging and we tried to find a pulse on the individual, tried to wake him up so he could answer us.”

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Kamel asked why Racine didn’t perform CPR on Fairholm, who was later pronounced dead in hospital. Racine said they were able to find a pulse at first, and that paramedics arrived shortly and took over first aid.

“My interest here … is that child,” Kamel said. “I tell myself that maybe we would have had a small chance to bring him back if we had done CPR.”

Fairholm’s death was investigated by the Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes (BEI), after which Quebec’s office of criminal prosecutions (DPCP) said in the fall of 2019 no charges would be laid because officers involved in the incident had followed the law. The DPCP said Fairholm could have fired at any moment since he refused to drop his weapon.

In 2021, Fairholm’s family decided to file a lawsuit against the force and the officer who fired the gun. It states the police intervention should have treated Fairholm as a vulnerable person who was in crisis — he had shown signs of suicidal ideation before the event — and that officers should have attempted to de-escalate the situation.

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Speaking only for himself, McGovern, who was the supervising officer the night Fairholm was shot, testified on Tuesday that under the circumstances, he doesn’t know how he could have reacted differently.

“Very calmly I told him to drop his weapon and that it would be OK if he dropped his weapon,” he said, adding that was always the goal of the intervention. “I repeated this at least three times.”

McGovern was asked whether police training allowed him to respond to such situations adequately. He said he’s completed sessions that include various scenarios involving firearms, and that he was taught to use force gradually.

“Usually the first element is the police presence with the uniform, and verbal,” he said. “And as the threat to the police go up, then our use of force will go up in accordance.”

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“The present situation, if I’d followed my training 100 per cent, I probably would have been the one to shoot him,” McGovern added. “The danger was there, the risk was there.”

McGovern said there was no way to know if Fairholm was suicidal or what he planned to do with the weapon.

“In a situation where there’s a firearm, the first priority is the security of the individuals,” he said. “I didn’t have any information if it was a person that was suicidal or a person that was bent on doing harm.”

The inquest is scheduled to continue Wednesday with testimonies from the three other SQ officers involved in the intervention as well as a paramedic.

kthomas@postmedia.com

twitter.com/katelynthomas

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