A First Nations woman was knocked unconscious at an RCMP detachment in Thompson, Man., and despite the act being caught on video, no formal investigation was launched and the woman says she was bullied into withdrawing her complaint against the officers involved.
The video, which CBC News obtained through a court application, has one former police watchdog calling for a full probe, and has prompted a lawsuit alleging she was discriminated against because she is Indigenous. Garson is a member of Tataskweyak Cree Nation.
Genesta Garson was 19 years old when she was picked up by two community safety officers on Jan. 6, 2018 outside of the Northern Inn in Thompson, a city of about 13,000 in northern Manitoba, on the suspicion of being drunk.
She was supposed to spend the night sleeping it off on a cold cement bed in a holding cell.
Instead, she left in an ambulance after a safety officer punched her in the chin, knocking her unconscious.
WATCH | Surveillance video from the RCMP detachment. (Warning: The video contains graphic and disturbing images.)
“I don’t feel safe around the RCMP officers anymore. Not since this happened,” Garson told CBC News.
“I was knocked out. They dragged me into the cells. My body was shaken up from being hit hard in the head.”
Garson admits to having had a few beers that night, but says she was detained after slipping on the ice.
She was taken to the local RCMP detachment and forced to strip down to one layer of clothes, and to remove her bra, for safety reasons. She was wearing several layers because of the frigid weather.
Surveillance video shows three officers around her as she removes each layer. Two are male community safety officers, quasi bylaw officers employed by the city. The third is a female RCMP officer.
The video shows Garson about to take off her belt and then hesitating. When one of the safety officers moves toward her, she moves away.
“I felt very uncomfortable when they asked me to take off my bra,” Garson said.
She takes off her belt and throws it toward him and the female RCMP officer.
“I tried giving my thin, soft belt to the male officer so fast, he thought I was trying to hit him,” she said.
At that moment, he strikes Garson in the face and her head hits the wall. She falls to the ground, smacking her head against the concrete floor.
‘Lost for words’
As Garson lay on the ground, not moving, the female RCMP officer quickly removed a layer of pants.
The two male officers then take her by the hands and drag Garson on her back and into a jail cell.
She is left on her back in the cell — and is seen writhing in pain — for about 15 minutes, when paramedics arrive and take her away on a stretcher to hospital
“I am lost for words on this case. I really am, I’m lost for words,” said her lawyer, Rohit Gupta as he watched the video.
“That is a person that’s clearly in pain, who came into this detachment standing on their own two feet and left in a stretcher.”
Hospital records from that night say she “struck officer with her belt, so got punched in the face.”
They also note she had a cut on her lip, bruising on her chin and had lost consciousness for 10 seconds. Bruising had appeared at the side of her head, where she struck the wall after being punched.
Watchdog has no jurisdiction
Community safety officers can, under Manitoba’s Police Services Act, detain someone if they are in public and believed to be intoxicated.
But they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the province’s police watchdog, which investigates when an officer may have caused the death or serious injury of a person, or have contravened certain laws.
RCMP officials say oversight for safety officers falls to the City of Thompson and, if there were criminal allegations, the RCMP would investigate.
A former police watchdog says these officers need independent oversight, just like police officers.
Howard Morton, who ran Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit in the mid-1990s, says what he saw in the surveillance video represents excessive use of force and that a full investigation should be launched
“When he punches her in the face, it’s the matter of retaliation. It’s not a matter of defending himself against further assaults,” Morton said.
He pointed out that there were three officers in the room, surrounding her, so she couldn’t escape. The officer could have backed up, grabbed her, or even just shoved her.
“But using a punch to the face as self-defence … seems to me clearly way out of proportion to what is permitted under our law,” he said.
Morton says the first thing the Manitoba government needs to do is put safety officers under the jurisdiction of the province’s Independent Investigation Unit.
Gupta agrees. He says lack of oversight “allows these individuals to go and operate with impunity.”
Over 27,000 arrests
Garson’s case is just one stemming from the over 27,000 times a person has been detained under the province’s Intoxicated Persons Detention Act (IPDA) by the RCMP in northern Manitoba in the last five years.
Though the region has a fraction of Winnipeg’s population of 700,000, figures provided by the RCMP show that people in the North are detained under IPDA at a rate six times greater than those in the capital.
The law allows the detention of anyone believed to be intoxicated in a public place.
They are not formally arrested and no record is created that is accessible through open court proceedings.
The law is meant to help protect an intoxicated person from being a danger to themselves or others.
But it is used disproportionately against Indigenous people, said Gupta.
He has spent the years as a criminal defence attorney in the North and says he frequently sees intoxicated Indigenous people wind up in jail, while anyone else gets a ride home or a warning from cops.
“The law is applied differently,” he said. “There’s a stark difference in the way that individuals are treated.”
Complaint withdrawn under pressure
After leaving hospital, Garson was charged with assaulting an officer. Gupta took her case pro bono and the charge was later stayed.
Gupta then helped her file a formal complaint against the RCMP with the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission in November 2018.
The complaint, which was obtained by CBC, says Gupta was to be the RCMP’s formal contact throughout the process.
However, that didn’t happen.
Instead, Garson and Gupta say several different RCMP officers came to Garson’s home in Split Lake, 140 kilometres north of Thompson, asking her to sign a form withdrawing the complaint.
Garson says she felt bullied, pressured and wanted the police to leave her alone, so she signed.
“They kept coming to my house, and to where I worked here in Split Lake until I signed the paper,” Garson said. “After that, they left me alone. I do not remember how many times they came to the house, I lost count.”
Gupta said he was shocked when he got a letter from RCMP officials saying Garson had withdrawn the complaint.
“That I find the most appalling out of all of this,” Gupta said.
“RCMP are aware that I’m counsel for Ms. Garson and yet try to circumvent that process by speaking to her on their own?”
Lawsuit filed against city, RCMP
Because of the lawsuit, officials with the City of Thompson, which employs the community safety officers, and the RCMP could not speak directly about Garson’s allegations or the video.
City manager Anthony McInnis said neither of the community safety officers involved remain in those positions, and only one is still an employee at the city. He would not say which one.
The lawsuit, filed in January, names the RCMP, the City of Thompson, the Attorney General of Canada, the two community safety officers — Garrett Allen and Thomas Warkentin — and the RCMP officer, Const. Jenelle Hulan.
Allen, who is named in the suit as the person who punched Garson, declined to comment when reached by phone. He directed all questions to the city manager.
The suit seeks damages, alleging the arrest and subsequent assault was “egregious, high-handed, [and] reprehensible.”
It also argues Garson’s charter rights were violated and she was discriminated against because she was Indigenous.
Two separate statements of defence filed by the RCMP and by the city deny the allegations.
The city alleges Garson was “actively combative” when she was detained and while at the detachment.
“Ms. Garson’s behaviour was erratic, uncooperative, and aggressive,” according to the statement of defence by the RCMP.
Supt. Kevin Lewis, North District Commander for the Manitoba RCMP, could not say if there was an internal investigation into what happened to Garson, but expressed remorse that Garson said she is now afraid of the police.
“That’s really sad and unfortunate,” he said.
“There are rules around our use of force. And again, it comes down to the perceptions of the officer at the time, as well as in that case, we are dealing with intoxicated individuals.”
He said the officers attending Garson’s house may have been trying to informally resolve her complaint, which is part of the process.
“It’s a normal process for a police officer to go. And again, they have to obtain a statement to find out what happened and what the person’s complaint is,” he said.
He said he didn’t know enough about the “ins and outs” of the process to answer why they didn’t go through her lawyer.
As for the high numbers of people arrested for being intoxicated in the North, he chalked that up to police being tapped to handle the social issues that plague these communities.
“At the end of the day, the RCMP and policing is not the right tool for dealing with the social issues. We’re just dealing with the causes. We’re just dealing with the result of the social issues.”