IIO clears officer in high-speed chase that led to fatal crash

Late on July 26, 2022, a Metro Vancouver Transit Police officer driving an unmarked Toyota Highlander tried to pull over a speeding Nissan Altima near the Burnaby-New Westminster border. 

Minutes later, the Altima would hit another car, killing two teenage occupants, Samir Olyad Suleiman Ali and Yasbrat Habtamu, who were driving home from soccer practice.

The officer’s vehicle reached speeds of up to 124.3 km/h in a 50 km/h zone as it tried to stop the Altima, according to a report newly made public by the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. (IIO).

But the police watchdog determined the officer’s speed didn’t play a role in the collision, and instead blamed the Nissan driver’s “reckless flight from a legitimate traffic stop” and the teenagers’ vehicle making an illegal left turn.

B.C.’s former solicitor general is now criticizing the findings of the report and raising questions about the limitations of the IIO — as the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, another agency with more powers, begins to investigate the case.

“These two people would be alive today, most likely, had the police officers not engaged in that pursuit,” said Kash Heed, who was also the chief of the West Vancouver Police Department.

A Nissan Altima fled police and was later found on fire after colliding with a Toyota Yaris at the intersection of 10th Avenue and Sixth Street, according to IIO. (Shane MacKichan)

‘Significantly above the speed limit’

Evidence suggests the police officer who drove the Highlander, who is not named in the report, drove at “speeds significantly above the speed limit,” according to the document.

The officer didn’t provide any account of what happened to the IIO. Officers are legally required to produce notes and reports about an incident but the agency does not compel officers who are the subject of an investigation to submit them.

The officer riding in the passenger seat of the unmarked Toyota said they were driving northbound over the Pattullo Bridge from Surrey to New Westminster when the driver asked him to make a computer enquiry about the licence of the Nissan Altima that had just passed them, according to the IIO report.

The vehicle was noted as having previously fled from police, the report said.

Police then followed the Altima for several streets where the speed limit is 50 km/h, before coming to a stop around Fourth Street.

A bouquet and a note with a little heart symbol at the end that reads, 'For Samir, you brought so much joy ... you will be missed.'
A memorial for Samir Olyad Suleiman Ali and Yasbrat Habtamu was put up near 10th Avenue and Sixth Street. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“GPS data shows the police vehicle speeding up from the turn onto 10th Avenue to a maximum speed of 124.3 km/h,” the report said.

The police vehicle slowed “fairly abruptly” about 155 metres from the intersection of 10th Avenue and Sixth Street, where the Nissan had hit the teenagers’ car, a Toyota Yaris, according to the report. The officer began braking before the collision, the IIO told CBC News.

‘Reasonable and lawful’

The IIO report found there were “valid concerns” about the suspect vehicle and that traffic was light. It concluded that the officer’s attempts to stop the Nissan were “reasonable and lawful.”

The Altima was driving “at least” twice the posted speed limit at the moment of impact. It had a green light on 10th Avenue and the teenagers’ vehicle made an illegal left turn onto Sixth Street, according to the report.

While the officer was cleared of wrongdoing this past winter, the IIO’s full report wasn’t made public until late June, delayed by criminal court proceedings.

A close up shows the back and shoulder of a female Metro Vancouver Transit Police Officer.
The transit officer continued to work during the IIO investigation, according to Metro Vancouver Transit Police. (Metro Vancouver Transit Police)

Cory Robert Brown, 28, was sentenced to 5½ years in prison last month, after pleading guilty to two counts of criminal negligence causing death.

The officer was never suspended or disciplined during the investigation and continues to work for Metro Vancouver Transit Police, the force confirmed with CBC News.

Victims were 17 and 18

Ali, 18, and 17-year-old Habtamu were both well loved in their communities.

Ali’s family came to Canada from Ethiopia as refugees. He was set to study kinesiology on a full scholarship at the University of British Columbia, according to an online fundraiser started after the incident.

Habtamu, who also came from a newcomer Ethiopian family, was about to enter his final year of high school and had recently made the Burnaby District Metro Soccer Men’s team, according to another fundraiser.

Their families did not want to be interviewed for the story.

Former police chief Heed questions why a police pursuit was necessary, suggesting there are ways the officers could have identified the people in the suspect vehicle in a different way, especially given that the vehicle had previously fled police.

Heed also suggested that officers could have called in other police services since the incident occurred near the Burnaby-New Westminster border.

“In my opinion, based on my 32 years in policing and examining police pursuits all across North America, there’s no way the [IIO] decision is accurate, in my opinion,” Heed said.

The back of a man wearing a jacket that says "IIO" in reflective tape.
The IIO said police officers ‘and any other Canadian who faces jeopardy has a right to silence under the Charter.’ (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Heed noted the IIO’s inability to compel officers to provide information is also a limiting factor.

In a statement to CBC News, IIO said police officers “and any other Canadian who faces jeopardy has a right to silence under the Charter.”

New investigation

The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC), which investigates whenever death or serious harm results from an incident involving B.C. municipal police officers, is now conducting its own probe. 

Its investigation is “separate and distinct” from IIO investigations, it told CBC News. 

Officers can be compelled to provide statements and answer questions and otherwise account for their actions. 

The OPCC will be assigning an external police agency to conduct the investigation, with OPCC providing civilian oversight. The investigation will take six months to complete, OPCC said, barring any extensions. 

Heed said the OPCC could come to a different conclusion than IIO. 

“I’m not happy. But at least we have the OPCC that’s looking at this,” Heed said.

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