'Someone is going to get hurt,' says OPP officer minutes before fatal 401 crash

2 policing experts say a pursuit could be called off after licence plate information is obtained

A stretch of the 401 highway in Whitby, Ontario is seen on Tuesday April 30, 2024. Two grandparents and their infant grandchild were killed on a busy stretch of Highway 401 on Monday night after a van being chased by police east of Toronto crashed while going the wrong way, causing a multi-vehicle collision. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

A police radio recording is providing a glimpse into the moments leading up to a fiery wrong-way crash that killed four people east of Toronto on Monday — and a caution from an officer that someone was going to get hurt amid the police chase.

The audio, which captures conversations between officers and a dispatcher on an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Highway Safety Division communication channel, is a window into the initial information investigators were working with as Durham police officers pursued a liquor store robbery suspect driving the wrong way on Highway 401 in Whitby, about 50 kilometres east of Toronto.

That chase ended in a fatal collision that involved at least six vehicles, according to the province's Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which examines deaths involving police.

Two grandparents and their infant grandchild were killed in the crash, alongside the robbery suspect himself. Another person was taken to hospital with significant injuries.

One major question that has emerged in the wake of the tragedy is why police officers continued to chase the suspect while he was speeding into oncoming traffic on the country's busiest highway.

The SIU has said that will be a key element of its investigation. Durham police declined to speak about the incident Wednesday, citing the SIU's investigation.

The site of the collision that ended Monday's police chase. Six vehicles were ultimately involved in the crash that killed two grandparents and their infant grandchild. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)
The site of the collision that ended Monday's police chase. Six vehicles were ultimately involved in the crash that killed two grandparents and their infant grandchild. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

The audio, which comes from the website Broadcastify, reveals police had identified a suspect vehicle with a licence plate at the time of the pursuit.

Two policing experts who spoke to CBC News say the chase could have been called off after that identifying information was obtained.

The incident began at an LCBO location in nearby Clarington, when an off-duty officer reported an attempted theft to Durham Regional Police at around 7:50 p.m. ET.

The dispatcher on the OPP channel first asked units to be on the lookout for a suspect and vehicle linked to that robbery not long after.

"Durham [police] advising there was a male inside the LCBO, he tried to rob the store. He pulled a knife on an off-duty officer," the dispatcher said. She also broadcast that the suspect was driving a U-Haul van and provided a licence plate number to officers, as well as the location the vehicle was last seen.

The dispatcher added the off-duty officer was following behind the U-Haul in a red Honda Odyssey minivan.

At one point, the OPP dispatcher said Durham police had 12 cars following the vehicle, "so we're probably not needed." OPP officers are responsible for patrolling highways in the area.

WATCH | Warning: This video contains explicit language:

A few minutes later, the dispatcher said Durham police hadn't been able to stop the U-Haul, and the driver had taken off at a high rate of speed toward Highway 401.

Not long after that, an officer called in to say Durham cops were pursuing the driver going west in the eastbound lanes of the highway.

Minutes later, an officer called in a warning.

"Comms centre if we could pass on, just want to make sure the Durham sergeant's aware that they're driving [in] the opposite direction," the officer said.

"Someone is going to get hurt."

The fatal collision then occurred around 8:10 p.m., the SIU says.

The province's new Ontario Community Safety and Policing Act, which was introduced in April, states that the decision to start a chase comes down to public safety. Police should not start a pursuit if it poses more risk to public safety than letting the person get away or remain unidentified, according to the act.

Bruce Pitt-Payne, a retired RCMP major crime investigator, told CBC News the options available to police in this case will be part of the investigation.

"Let's say they got a licence number and they recognized the driver, there would be no reason, probably, or very few reasons to get involved in a dangerous situation by continuing," he said.

Steven Summerville, formerly a Toronto police officer and Ontario Police College instructor, echoed Pitt-Payne's comments around identification.

"The regulation is very clear that these pursuits will be discontinued after identification of a vehicle or occupants occurred," Summerville said.

Questions have also been raised by users on social media about whether Durham police should have used its helicopter to pursue the vehicle.

In early April, the force said its chopper can be at any scene within its 2,500-square kilometre jurisdiction within minutes.

"The good part of having a helicopter is it can follow for a while," Pitt-Payne said when asked about the potential use of a helicopter in this case. "But it isn't a panacea. If the person ditches the car or gets in another car, sometimes its value is lost as well."

When it comes to the calculation of risk police make while engaging in chases, one Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer said the density of the roadway should also factor in.

"This is a situation that sort of screamed out for the police to stand down and let the suspect go, no matter how much they wanted to arrest them in the moment," said Daniel Brown.

"Because the risk was too great and this was a foreseeable risk."