Arrest raises more questions about Winnipeg police’s use-of-force tactics

Footage shows cruiser ramming suspect, leaving man with fractured elbow

A dramatic arrest on a West End street, that involved a police cruiser being used to take down a suspect who was fleeing on foot, raises new concerns about the Winnipeg Police Service’s use-of-force protocols.

The incident has been kept from public view for three weeks, amid mounting calls to defund police departments and waves of Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the continent.

The police service has not publicly disclosed the May 27 arrest — now under investigation by Manitoba’s police watchdog — in which a cruiser car struck a suspect as he fled on foot down the 700 block of Sargent Avenue.

Police have refused to release the man’s name, citing the fact the initial report that sent officers to the scene was a domestic dispute.

But the Free Press has obtained police video of the incident.

 

After receiving a report that a man and woman were fighting around 9:15 p.m., the police service dispatched multiple officers to the area.

Footage taken by the police helicopter shows a man walking westbound down Sargent Avenue with a woman. Police radio transmissions quickly identify the man as the suspect in the domestic dispute.

Seconds later, multiple cruiser cars arrive on scene, and the man takes off running. Two officers get out of their vehicle and chase the man.

“He might have been trying to bear-spray officers here,” a WPS member says over the police radio system. The man can be seen spraying an unknown substance in an apparent attempt to ward off officers.

As the man flees on foot, a police officer driving a cruiser car accelerates up the street against oncoming traffic and turns left toward the sidewalk. The suspect is struck by the cruiser car, which mounts the curb and drives him onto the pavement.

Police move in to arrest the suspect. He was taken to Health Sciences Centre, where he was diagnosed with a fractured elbow. Since this constitutes a “serious injury” under the Police Services Act, the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba launched a probe.

Winnipeg police spokesman Const. Rob Carver says the force has provided full disclosure to the IIU. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)
Winnipeg police spokesman Const. Rob Carver says the force has provided full disclosure to the IIU. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The WPS informed the IIU of the incident May 28. When the IIU announced its investigation into the matter June 1, it made no mention of a police cruiser striking the suspect, and only identified him as a 23-year-old man.

“The male was unco-operative and force was used to arrest him,” reads the IIU news release.

A review of the agency’s news releases indicates it’s common practice to explicitly note when it’s investigating a motor-vehicle collision. The agency also often provides information on the manner in which a suspect is alleged to have been injured by police.

The Free Press repeatedly contacted the IIU to ask if the footage was in its possession, and, if so, when it was obtained. The IIU would neither confirm nor deny it had the footage, citing its ongoing investigation.

On Friday, WPS spokesman Const. Rob Carver said the force had provided “full disclosure” to the IIU.

The suspect is charged with 15 criminal offences in connection with the incident, including four counts of assaulting a police officer.

On several occasions since the beginning of the year, the police service proactively disclosed cases in which its officers were allegedly assaulted. No news release was issued for this case.

“I have difficulty imagining a situation where ramming your car into a person as they’re running away could be justified. The police car is not a weapon, and the police are dealing with real human beings, not playing a video game.”‐ Human rights attorney Corey Shefman

When shown the video by the Free Press, two criminologists and one lawyer characterized the incident as excessive force. A second lawyer interviewed said he could see both arguments for, and against, the incident constituting excessive force.

“When police use force, it must be proportional to the threat, and it should be the minimum amount of force needed to protect and preserve life. Ramming a fleeing suspect with your car is not proportional and seems incredibly excessive,” said Corey Shefman, a human rights attorney.

“I have difficulty imagining a situation where ramming your car into a person as they’re running away could be justified. The police car is not a weapon, and the police are dealing with real human beings, not playing a video game.”

Ian Scott, a lawyer and former head of the Special Investigations Unit of Ontario (the regional counterpart to the IIU), said the video can be interpreted multiple ways.

If the officer claims they didn’t intend to hit the suspect with the cruiser car, but merely cut him off, Scott said the incident could be interpreted as an accident, rather than a use-of-force situation.

However, if it is proven the officer intended to hit the suspect with the vehicle, then the question of whether a criminal charge should be laid hinges on whether the officer’s actions were likely to cause “grievous bodily harm.”

Only if the officer intended to ram the suspect with the car, and if that decision were likely to seriously injure him, would a criminal charge against the officer be justified, Scott said.

Carver provided basic details about the case when contacted by the Free Press, but — citing the IIU probe — would not comment on how the suspect was injured or the fact he was hit by a police vehicle.

Carver said multiple officers were treated by paramedics at the scene, but none required hospitalization.

Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Winnipeg, said the video shows the WPS violate the “1+1 rule,” which states police can only escalate the use-of-force continuum in proportion to the level of threat they face.

While bear spray — if it’s proven in court that’s what the suspect had on him — constitutes a threat to officers, Walby said it’s not a lethal threat, and it’s possible the suspect could have been killed when hit by the car.

“In terms of the bigger picture, is this how we want to respond to transgression in our society? A group of folks with cars running people down. Or can we do better? Can we devise different kinds of teams that can respond without running people down or shooting them?” Walby said.

The video has come to light at a time when calls to reform police departments ring loud in the ears of politicians and law enforcement officials across the continent.

It also comes on the heels of the controversial arrest of Flinn Nolan Dorian, a 33-year-old Indigenous man, last week. Footage of the arrest was posted to social media, sparking outrage from some Winnipeggers and support from others.

Winnipeg officers kicked Dorian twice, repeatedly kneed him, and punched him seven times during a scuffle in the Exchange District on June 11. Police had been called to the scene regarding a man breaking into a commercial building, destroying property, and brandishing a handgun.

The handgun was later determined to be a replica airsoft pistol. Police said he was also armed with a knife and metal bar, which justified the officers’ response.

Dorian has been charged with multiple criminal offences in connection with the incident. The allegations against him have not been proven in court.

Video of the arrest sparked condemnation from Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, and David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation.

On Tuesday, Winnipeg Liberal MP Dan Vandal told a federal committee that racism and police bias in Winnipeg have hardly changed since the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (1989-1991), which was held in response to the fatal shooting of J.J. Harper.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Free Press that provincial governments must play a role in stamping out police brutality. He said he plans to raise the issue of systemic racism in policing during his weekly phone call with premiers.

Police use-of-force protocols, and the broader role law enforcement officers play in communities, has come under fire in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by Minneapolis police on May 25.

Floyd’s death resulted in Black Lives Matter protests across North America, including a June 5 rally in Winnipeg in which 15,000 people took part.

A second demonstration, in honour of Eishia Hudson, a 16-year-old Indigenous female shot to death by police in April after allegedly robbing a liquor store and fleeing in a stolen vehicle, was scheduled for Friday evening. Hudson was one of three Indigenous people fatally shot by Winnipeg police officers within a 10-day period that month.

The question of whether the officer in the May 27 case will be cleared of wrongdoing by the IIU will likely not be known for some time. It can take more than a year for IIU investigations to be closed.

SOURCE

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @rk_thorpe

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