This Sunday (January 13th) will mark the one-year anniversary of the tragic death of Debra Hill, outside of her home near Tichborne, after being dropped off by OPP officers.
The case generated a Special Investigation Unit (SIU) investigation because of the involvement of the OPP, and it took over 11 months for the SIU to report back. The report, which is dated December 3, was released on December 20th, and concluded that charges are not warranted against the two officers who dropped her off at her home.
“I am unable to find that the subject officers showed a wanton or reckless disregard for the life of the Complainant, nor am I able to find that their conduct amounted to a marked departure from the standard of a police officer,” wrote SIU Director Tony Loparco.
The SIU report included a chronology of police communications from that evening, as well as a narrative based on interviews with the two police officers who were involved, as well as 5 other police and 12 civilian witnesses.
A set of unusual circumstances form the backdrop for Hill’s death: The weather that night was extreme. A rain, freezing rain, and snow event followed by a sudden temperature drop and high winds resulted in a cold, icy night. Police were on the rural side-road late on a Saturday night to investigate a series of break-ins at cottage properties at the far end of the road. Hill and her husband, Kevin Teal, were at a relative’s house, and as they were pulling out of the driveway to go drive a short distance to their home, a police cruiser spotted them. The car pulled into a neighbouring driveway, and Teal exited the vehicle and ran off.
Here is how the SIU report describes what happened next.
“An officer called out to him, but he did not stop. The subject officers investigated the truck and noticed the Complainant crouched next to the passenger side of the truck. The officers yelled at her to not move and drew their service pistols. The officers re-holstered their pistols when it became apparent that the Complainant was not a threat.”
They did take her into custody, handcuffed her and placed her in the back of the cruiser, and reported to the Communications centre that she was “heavily impaired”.
Eventually police took her back to the relative’s house, and talked to family members there. They were told her husband was not there, but had been, and a discussion took place about whether she should stay there overnight, but she said she needed to go home to feed her wood stove, so the police officers decided to drive her home. When they got to her house, they were aware that she did not have her key, but she told them she would be ok.
Here is how the report describes that final interaction.
“Before the officers left, the Complainant realized that she did not have the keys to her house. SO#2 asked the Complainant if she could get into her home and she replied matter-of-fact and with confidence, ‘Don’t worry, I can get into my own house.’ She hugged and thanked the officers.” (SO#2 refers to Subject Officer #2, one of the two police officers who were the subject of the investigation)
The SIU report then says “SO#2 believed she was capable of getting into her home, and the officers returned to their vehicles and drove away. The Complainant walked toward the porch and was last seen by the officers standing next to her front door.” This was at 1:20am, 80 minutes after they found her at the truck.
She was found on the front porch of her house early the next morning. Paramedics arrived at 5:37, reported “vital signs absent” and transported her to Perth hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Cause of death was listed as hypothermia. She had injuries that were consistent with a fall, but “there were no injuries to indicate an attack by a 3rd party. Her blood ethanol level was 232mg/100ml, enough for severe impairment but not enough to cause her death. Alcohol use is known to accelerate the onset of hypothermia, and the report concludes; “Death was due to hypothermia with alcohol intoxication as a contributory factor.”
The main question for the investigation relates to the decision made by the two officers to leave the scene before ensuring that Debra Hill had made it into her house.
The investigator looked into whether leaving the scene at that time constituted a “wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons” to use the language in the law.
Citing case law, which “sets out the test for criminal negligence as requiring ‘a marked and substantial departure from the standard of a reasonable person in circumstances’, the investigator said he is “unable to find that the subject officers showed a wanton or reckless disregard for the life of the Complainant, nor am I able to find that their conduct amounted to a marked departure from the standard of a police officer.”
At the very end of the report, SIU Director Loparco is a bit harsher. He noted that Debra Hill’s death has been heartbreaking for her family and has deeply affected the officers who were involved. He said the officers “made a very unfortunate decision by not ensuring that the Complainant had entered her home after leaving her on her porch, before reiterating his finding that “the Complainant’s death was unforeseeable and the officers’ conduct does not amount to criminal negligence in the circumstances.”