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Although three people were shot by police in March, Edmonton Police Service Acting Chief Kevin Brezinski, seen at EPS headquarters on Friday, says Edmonton usually averages two or three officer involved shootings annually and he doesn’t expect the trend to continue.

Coming out of a month in which there were no less than three police shootings in Edmonton, police agencies across Alberta maintain that this is not a trend, Jana G. Pruden reports

Although three people were shot by police in March, Edmonton Police Service Acting Chief Kevin Brezinski, seen at EPS headquarters on Friday, says Edmonton usually averages two or three officer involved shootings annually and he doesn't expect the trend to continue.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Policing agencies in Alberta are eyeing a steady rise in serious police-involved incidents in the province – including three police shootings in Edmonton in March, one of which was fatal.

"Certainly this will be concerning for the citizens of Edmonton, but I can tell you to have three officer-involved shootings in one month is an anomaly," said Kevin Brezinski, acting chief with the Edmonton Police Service (EPS). He said Edmonton usually sees an average of two or three officer-involved shootings in an entire year.

"When you compare it to previous years, having three in one month is extreme," he said. "I highly doubt this trend is going to continue and I hope not, for both our citizens and our officers. But it's nothing to panic about at this stage."

The first incident took place on March 9, when Vitaly Savin, a 55-year-old Russian construction worker with no previous criminal record, was shot to death after officers pulled him over in response to 911 calls about a suspected impaired driver.

The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), which independently investigates police incidents, said in a statement that a large hunting knife was found on the ground beside Mr. Savin after the shooting.

Four days later, 36-year-old Glenn Ironchild was shot by police after he was seen brandishing a rifle and pointing it at people on a busy Edmonton street. Before the shooting, an emotional Mr. Ironchild had posted a video to Facebook in which he showed a firearm and a bullet, and a written status that said he had guns and was "locked and loaded."

"My ILLUMINATI has taken effect … to prove my LOYALTY ima kill myself and come back," the post read. His father, Glenn Pelletier, told the media his son has since said he was intending "to commit suicide by the police."

The third incident took place on March 30, when a 35-year-old man was shot by officers who had been following his vehicle in relation to an investigation into threats made against police.

According to a statement from ASIRT, the man left his vehicle and "an encounter occurred that resulted in an officer discharging his police service weapon." He has not been publicly identified.

Both that man and Mr. Ironchild were injured in the shootings, but survived. Mr. Ironchild, who has a long criminal history which included a firearm ban, faces a number of new charges.

Acting Chief Brezinski said he could not comment specifically on any of the cases as they remain under investigation by ASIRT, but noted that the circumstances were different in each situation and that they are not related in any way.

"It's the nature of doing police work," he said. "Unfortunately, in this instance, we had three violent encounters within one month."

Statistics from ASIRT show a steady increase in serious police-involved incidents in Alberta since the agency started in 2008. That year, there were 10 cases of police interactions that resulted in death or serious injury. In 2016, there were 42 such incidents. They include not only police shootings but vehicle pursuits and collisions, use-of-force incidents with no weapon and injuries incurred by use of tasers and police dogs.

ASIRT statistics show nine police shootings that caused death or serious injury in 2013, 10 in 2014, 13 in 2015 and nine in 2016.

Calgary itself had a total of 10 police shootings last year, the highest of any city in the country. Five of the shootings were fatal and two caused injury. No one was hit in the other cases.

Speaking to the media in November, Calgary Police Chief Roger Chaffin said police there were dealing with a "changing trend in criminality in the city," in large part because of the presence of methamphetamine and opioids.

"Until we get on top of that problem, our officers are being faced with more and more chaotic situations," he said.

Acting Chief Brezinski said officers in Edmonton are also seeing changes in what they encounter on the street, including finding more firearms during vehicle stops and an increase in the kind of home invasions he says are typically linked to organized crime.

Nonetheless, he says use-of-force incidents are generally down in Edmonton and that officers are trained to de-escalate situations verbally, which can often resolve serious and potentially-violent situations without force.

"I think that we are trained properly," he said. "It's just unfortunate that sometimes the situations escalate to the point where verbal communication doesn't work and you have to take action."

So far this year, there are nine police-involved incidents of death or serious injury being investigated across the province; three in Edmonton, three in Calgary and three in RCMP jurisdictions. One of the three fatalities was Mr. Savin's death, the other two were RCMP cases.

There have been three firearm incidents in which someone was killed or seriously injured, all of which were in Edmonton in March.

ASIRT executive director Susan Hughson declined to be interviewed. In February, she said the caseload at ASIRT has grown "exponentially."