ASIS Toronto: Lessons from the Toronto van attack of 2018
The Toronto chapter of ASIS International recently hosted a live virtual presentation with Inspector Graham Gibson of the RCMP, formerly with the Toronto Police Homicide Squad, who served as detective to investigate the 2018 Toronto van attack.
On the afternoon of April 23, 2018, a 25-year-old Alek Minassian took the wheel of a rented van and ploughed through a Yonge Street sidewalk, killing 10 people and injuring 16 others.
The attack lasted seven minutes, leaving behind a crime scene that stretched across 2.2 kilometres. Police investigated 13 different areas where pedestrians were struck.
Inspector Gibson said that a crime scene this size is best managed in sections with one area commander at each section reporting back to one incident commander.
“That’s for the purpose of keeping the area secure from people trying to get in on the crime scene, which was very difficult to do,” said Inspector Gibson.
Securing the scene
The attack left a trail of deceased persons on the ground, eight of whom were pronounced dead at the scene while two others died at Sunnybrook Hospital.
Gibson emphasized that in an event like this, police must consider two critical components: the first is securing the scene to allow for the collection of evidence for use in a potential court case; the second component is removal of the deceased victims from public view.
An incident with multiple casualties of a vehicular attack requires a coroner, a traffic reconstructionist expert and forensic identification services at each the site of each victim, Gibson also stated.
Liaising with hospital
Victims of the attack were sent to Sunnybrook, St. Michael’s and North York General Hospitals.
Inspector Gibson said it is important to have officers at these hospitals feeding back information to incident command officers and investigators. Officers present at hospitals taking down information should have a level of exposure to such incidents that allows them to relay information accurately.
Inspector Gibson said Toronto Police obtained a plethora of surveillance footage from nearby businesses and dash cams.
He presented footage shot from inside a store on Yonge Street, depicting the speed at which Minassian drove the van — an important piece of evidence for court purposes.
He said that investigators must include public transportation in the scope of their investigations as Toronto Police also retrieved useful footage captured on the camera of a TTC vehicle.
In a case like this one, units must send their most competent officers prepared with specific questions for witnesses and specific requests regarding surveillance. Inspector Gibson also noted that in addition to collecting footage, officers must ensure they can play it. In his experience, different recordings require different devices.
There came a point during the attack where the van veered off Yonge and onto a side street.
Minassian later told investigators that he’d realized there were too many obstacles, preventing him from driving straight through. According to Inspector Gibson, these obstacles were likely a combination of concrete planters and mailboxes. There were no more casualties or injuries after this point.
“The unfortunate fact is that this is going to happen again, and we may not know when and where, but we are a little bit better prepared for it,” said Inspector Gibson.