The demand for a coroner’s inquest into the violent and tragic death last month of a Summerside man is certainly a legitimate one. It raises questions why an inquest wasn’t ordered as a matter of course. If someone dies in jail or a death occurs while a person is an inmate in P.E.I., an inquest is mandatory. The circumstances here are equally serious as police were attempting to take a man into custody.
Jeremy Stephens, 32, died at the Prince County Hospital on May 27 following an altercation with Summerside police investigating a robbery. His family was told by a doctor that the victim had six bullet wounds. Police say he violently resisted efforts to arrest him.
The two police officers involved had been on administrative leave following the shooting. What concerns the Stephens’ family, and which led to a request this week for a coroner’s inquest, are comments made by Summerside Police Services, saying the officers can return to work when they are “ready and willing.” It seems the department has made a judgment that police acted properly and has absolved the officers of any misconduct.
The grieving family thinks it’s too soon to draw such conclusions. They are awaiting a police investigation by the Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) in Halifax. The team is called to look into serious incidents involving police the Atlantic provinces, but that investigation could take six months or more. The family is reluctant to wait that long for answers and Summerside police are declining comment pending the SIRT investigation.
The information received by the Stephens’ family has been scant. They are not sure what happened and want to see and hear the evidence for themselves. They suggest that Jeremy Stephens wouldn’t have hurt anybody. They just want the truth – good or bad – and closure.
An inquest might also provide recommendations to avoid such a tragic outcome in the future, such as why didn’t police use a Taser or pepper spray to subdue Mr. Stephens? Until we know the circumstances, we’ll never know if police had no other option than to draw weapons and use deadly force. Three other suspects in that robbery were arrested and face charges. Mr. Stephens wasn’t so lucky.
The family admits that Jeremy Stephens had issues - struggling much of his life with addictions and mental health difficulties, and was frequently in trouble with the law. He was no stranger to police. Sometimes, help was available to him. Other times, it was not.
Summerside police reached an internal conclusion. The family who loved Mr. Stephens deserve answers. They have a lawyer involved and her request is simple - call a coroner’s inquest and have the facts of the case presented. The family and the public need assurances that officers acted properly – in the first such fatal police shooting anyone can remember in P.E.I.
Family members want justice for a son and brother and relative. And they should not have to wait six months or longer for some straight answers.