September 25, 2022

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The father of an Alberta man who died in police custody after calling 911 for help during a suspected break-in says RCMP negligence contributed to his son’s death. 

Addison Hartzler, 30, died in a holding cell at the Grande Prairie RCMP detachment on June 3, hours after being arrested at his home in the city 460 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Gregory Hartzler says his son’s death points to systemic failures with the way the RCMP protects Canadians and prevents in-custody deaths.

He says the arrest was unlawful and that RCMP neglected Addison’s need for urgent medical attention.

“It’s their fundamental responsibility to ensure that we are taken care of. And the Grande Prairie RCMP definitely did not do this,” Hartzler said.

“Just every direction you look, it is total negligence.” 

Alberta RCMP were initially in charge of the death investigation, a decision that prompted complaints from the Hartzler family who were concerned about the prospect of internal investigation. 

Two months later, on Aug. 9, RCMP were told that Alberta’s director of law enforcement had reassigned the case to the the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, the province’s police watchdog.

ASIRT has not responded to CBC’s requests for comment.

Hartzler says his son called RCMP after a suspected break and enter at the home where he was living. But he says that after responding officers failed to find any evidence of a break-in, they arrested Addison for public mischief.

RCMP confirm that officers were called to the home at 1:42 a.m. on June 3 and arrived five minutes later.

Hartzler’s father says home security video shows his son was arrested nine minutes after police arrived.

The video shows at least three officers arriving on scene and approaching the house with long guns and flashlights. One minute later, officers re-enter the frame. Addison Hartzler is alongside the officers as they walk back to their vehicles.

Hartzler is then seen speaking with officers near the home’s front driveway before sliding into the back seat of a police cruiser. He appears calm and is not handcuffed.

The video then shows the officers running back toward the house. They briefly search the backyard, using flashlights.

Addison Hartzler is still seated in the back of the cruiser as two other police vehicles pull in close to it. The Mounties huddle on the street before the police cars drive away, the video shows.

Hartzler was arrested, taken to the Grande Prairie RCMP detachment and placed in a holding cell.

Information obtained by the family from Alberta Health Services indicates that he was last seen alive at the detachment at 9 a.m., more than two hours before RCMP called paramedics.

‘Obviously dead’

An EMS patient report obtained by CBC states that Hartzler was “obviously dead” when paramedics arrived at 11:17 a.m.

The report says officers found him, lying face-up him on the floor and performed CPR until paramedics declared him deceased.

“Blood was present around patient’s mouth and nose, no active bleeding, blood was noted on the floor near his head,” reads the report.

“CPR was discontinued at this time due to obvious signs of death.”

Gregory Hartzler said he is concerned about the two-hour gap between when Addison was last seen alive and when EMS was called. RCMP protocol dictates that checks on physical well-being must be performed at irregular intervals, no more than 15 minutes apart.

The EMS report states that RCMP had not been able to identify Hartzler or ascertain any medical history.

“They’ve told us they didn’t even know who he was after he was dead in a cell, nine hours after being in custody,” Hartzler said.

“It’s ludicrous. His car was in the garage of the house. He had his wallet and keys on the front seat.

“It brings into question what kind of a search did these [officers] even do at the house looking for anybody that was potentially breaking in?”

Questions about mental state, drugs

Hartzler said that in a phone conversation after his son’s death, the arresting officer told him the decision to detain Addison was made after he was either unwilling or unable to provide his name.

The officer told him his son had been acting in a psychotic and delusional manner, he said.

The EMS patient report said RCMP advised paramedics there had been “a possibility of cocaine use.”

Hartzler suspects his son was experiencing a medical episode unrelated to drug use or mental health issues.

Hartzler said the family is still waiting for the medical examiner to determine the cause of death, but have been told that toxicology tests found nothing.

“From our perspective, it really doesn’t matter at this point what the final outcome of the autopsy is,” he said.  “To rush to judgment, to take somebody into custody in the middle of the night like that … and and not get them medically assessed is beyond imagination.”

Hartzler said his son should never have been arrested.

Under the Criminal Code, police need reasonable grounds to arrest a person for public mischief. 

“There was obviously something wrong with him. What that is, today, we honestly don’t know,” he said.

“But at the end of the day, he should have been medically assessed. He should have been medically assessed at the house. When they didn’t do it there, they should have done it as the police station.”

An email exchange between Hartzler family lawyer Tom Engel and Marlin Degrand, an assistant deputy minister at Alberta Justice and Solicitor General, suggests the initial decision to have the RCMP investigate the death was due in part to ASIRT’s caseload.

“Given the circumstances, the lack of any confrontation between police and Mr. Hartzler and taking into consideration the tasking events recently given to ASIRT, I directed that the RCMP retain carriage of the investigation,” Degrand wrote.

“However, if any concerns should arise during their investigation in relation to a potential conflict having taken place with police, or in relation to the care provided to Mr. Hartzler, a follow-up call was to be made.”

Hartzler said his son was healthy, fun-loving and deeply loyal. He had just moved to Grande Prairie from British Columbia to search for a job.

Court records show he was sentenced to 15 months in jail for an assault in 2012 but had no other criminal record.

The night before he died, Addison and his father spoke on the phone.

They were making plans for a visit in Calgary over the weekend. Addison was in a good mood, watching a hockey game in the garage, his father said.

“We want a thorough investigation,” he said. “We want the RCMP to be held accountable.”

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