Killing her still haunts him 12 years later
“I don’t want her to die... No one wants her to die”
At times the memories are awakened by the news of the day or when the weather turns cold and ice crystals hang in the air, like it was on the day one life was taken and another forever changed.
At those times, Dale Orban is transported back to a frigid Sunday morning near Regina’s downtown: When he could clearly hear each “pop” in the otherwise still air, every crunch of footsteps on the snow, and each breath as his adrenaline pumped.
Like a slow-motion movie on a continuous loop, Orban sees Denice Dawn Cyr hit the ground from the bullets fired by him and a fellow police officer.
“You couldn’t make a movie that was as intense as those seconds,” says the now-retired sergeant. At the point the 20-year-old woman falls, the “movie” suddenly speeds up as Orban and other officers rush to give first aid, trying to save the life they were taking seconds before.
“I don’t want her to die. No one wants her to die.”
As shootings by Saskatchewan police officers hit the headlines once again, Orban has agreed to give a glimpse into such incidents from an officer’s perspective.
Twelve years have passed since Cyr’s death, but the day remain vividly etched in Orban’s memory.
“It’s not something you would wish upon your worst enemy, because it never does go away.”
If Orban could change the finale of that movie he’s replayed so often, Cyr would have survived her encounter with the police on Jan. 28, 1996.
But that wish is tempered by the belief that had there been an alternate ending, Orban or another officer or someone else on that street corner might have died at the hands of the troubled young woman armed with a loaded pistol.
“I’m not proud of the fact that I had to take someone’s life. I was doing my job,” says Orban, who was an RCMP officer for two years and a Regina police officer for 26 years until his retirement in March 2006.
While an officer trains for and knows he may have to shoot someone, the odds are actually pretty slim that he will. Orban had never fired his gun at anyone in nearly two decades of policing until shooting Cyr. In the 116year history of the Regina Police Service, six people have died in shootings by officers. (One of those victims committed suicide after being shot by police.)
Police officers are trained to fire at “centre mass” or the upper torso. Unlike movies, police officers don’t shoot to wound or shoot guns out of people’s hands.
“Humanly, I couldn’t do that. I wish I could,” says Orban.
“If you start thinking that you can shoot to wound, there’s a good chance you’re going to miss. And there’s a good chance you’re going to be the victim, or you’re going to cause someone else to be injured,” he adds. “That’s like saying, ‘Shoot the apple off their head.’ That’s fiction.”
While fate is decided in fractions of a second, Orban says he still weighed all possibilities, relying on his training for a “logical reaction.”
“You have to physically and mentally absorb everything that’s going on and make the best decision you possibly can,” he says. “This isn’t a war. This is a street in downtown Regina … You’re out there for public safety.”
It began with a call from a man about a young woman who had fired three shots inside an apartment and fled with at least one gun.
“She just went wild,” the uninjured man, who had bullets whizzing by his head, told a 9-1-1 operator around 9 a.m. He was missing his .44-magnum revolver as well as the .22-calibre pistol that he actually saw the woman take.
Orban, then a corporal, was only a few blocks away and quickly headed toward the area near 13th Avenue and Ottawa Street. He thought he saw the suspect, whom he’d never dealt with before, enter a house on 13th Avenue.
As backup arrived, officers went to speak to the man in the Ottawa Street apartment while others established a perimeter. Orban saw a woman who fit the suspect’s description come out of a duplex and walk back up the street towards the officers who were in a police car with the man from the apartment.
“That changed the whole situation again, because you can’t sit back and wait for something to happen … They’re going back to a situation where now you have two cops, with the person this person may have been shooting at. Are they going back to finish the job?” Orban says.
The plan was to move in and arrest the woman before anything could happen. Const. Alex Yum was a few metres behind Cyr on the sidewalk, while Const. Rick Symonds moved along in front of the houses. Orban, across the street, was parallel to them.
“She had a big winter coat on. You can’t assume she has the guns on her, because she could have left them in that house. And you can’t assume she doesn’t have them on her,” Orban says.
Yum and Symonds were shouting for Cyr to stop, but the intoxicated young woman seemed oblivious to their demands. Orban, likely out of her view, shouted at her by name, saying “Denise, talk to me. Stop here. Let’s talk about this.” Cyr initially stopped, turned toward the other officers, threw her arms into the air, then out to her sides. But then she inexplicably turned and continued up the street, ignoring further demands for her to stop.
Orban, angling towards Cyr, hoped to get close enough to tackle her. He says his pepper spray was useless at that point — even if he could get close enough — because it would have hit her in the back.
He is convinced to this day that Cyr didn’t even realize he was to her side — that she thought it was Yum who had called to her by name. “That’s who her attention was on … I was out of her line of sight.”
Cyr turned to her left, away from Orban and towards Yum. Her hand came out with “something.” Orban wasn’t absolutely sure what it was — and “something isn’t good enough.” He hesitated.
At the subsequent coroner’s inquest, Yum said he was closing in to tackle Cyr when she stopped, yelled “F--you,” pulled out the pistol and fired.
From Orban’s vantage, “I saw the gun in her hand, and I saw Alex … I remember seeing a puff of smoke out the end of the gun and hearing a pop. There was no loud bangs.
“I remember thinking, ‘I waited too long.’ I thought Alex had been shot.” Focused on his own actions, he doesn’t even recall Yum firing. But both he and Yum shot Cyr. Symonds also thought he fired at her, but the forensic evidence said otherwise.
“It was like everything was in stop motion. Every time you pull the trigger you heard just a pop and saw just a little puff of smoke come out of the barrel of your gun. And at the same, you’re concentrating on everything that’s going on and you’re thinking, ‘What in the hell is happening here?’ ” says Orban.
Cyr had both the .22-calibre pistol and the .44 magnum, which was in the waistband of her pants.
Hours before the confrontation, the distraught young woman had told a friend, “I can see my own death.”
The police officer suddenly assumes the role of suspect as the investigation begins.
Orban remembers receiving the standard police warning, having his clothing and gun seized as evidence, giving a blood sample to check for intoxicants, and making a statement.
The investigation found the officer’s actions were justified in the circumstances.
“You do need to know that you did the right thing, or that there weren’t options that you missed. Good God, I’ve relived that moment a million times since then, where you sit there and think, ‘What could I have done differently?’ And you second guess.”
Orban has no problem with his actions being examined objectively, but bristles at suggestions his motives were more sinister. In the days after Cyr’s death, two social-action groups levelled accusations of racism.
“That wasn’t the case. Never in my career did I look at the colour of someone’s skin … This situation happened because of the firearms involved.”
His life was preserved that winter day, but Orban certainly didn’t walk away unscathed. In the aftermath, there were bouts of insomnia, nightmares when he could doze off, and feelings of being “marked.” A doctor said he was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Orban struggles to get his words out as he recalls returning home that night and telling his then-11-year-old daughter what had happened.
“She asked if I had any other choice. And I said, ‘No, I didn’t.’ And then she asked if this lady had any kids of her own,” he says, trying to control his emotions. “The impact on me I can live with … but how it affects your kid, your wife, your mom and dad. How it affected her (Cyr’s) parents, her friends, her family …”
As his emotions give way, Orban says, “Cops aren’t machines. This is 12 years later and it’s like it was yesterday. Twelve years from now if I’m still alive, it will be like it was yesterday.”
(Second in a six-part series. On Wednesday, the third story in the Deadly Force series focuses on one Regina family who lost a loved one in a police shooting.)
Regina police investigate the scene following the shooting of Denice Dawn Cyr by police officers on Jan. 28, 1996.