Nunavut RCMP officer acquitted of assault had inmate's best interests at heart: judge

When Sgt. Paul Marenchuk used pepper spray on a suicidal man at the Pond Inlet RCMP detachment, he was trying to keep the inmate safe, according to the written decision of the Iqaluit judge who found the officer not guilty of assault.

Sgt. Paul Marenchuk used pepper spray on a suicidal inmate in 2015

An Iqaluit judge found RCMP Sgt. Paul Marenchuk did not use excessive force when he pepper sprayed Lanny Kippomee, a inmate threatening suicide at the Pond Inlet detachment. (Nick Murray/CBC)

When Sgt. Paul Marenchuk used pepper spray on a suicidal man at the Pond Inlet RCMP detachment, he was trying to keep the inmate safe, according to the written decision of the Iqaluit judge who found the officer not guilty of assault.

Justice Sue Cooper's 11-page judgment, which was released to CBC News, serves as an examination of decisions police are faced with when balancing prisoners' rights with safety concerns for both the inmates and officers. 

Marenchuk, a 30 year veteran of the force, was found not guilty earlier this month following a four day trial in March. At issue was whether the senior officer used excessive force when he pepper sprayed Lanny Kippomee, a inmate threatening suicide at the Pond Inlet detachment.

The judge ultimately found that Marenchuk relied on his knowledge of a recent inmate suicide and previous experiences with Kippomee when he made the decision to use his pepper spray.

"Marenchuk had many years of experience of community policing in Nunavut and was sensitive to issues particular to the North," wrote Cooper. 

The judge noted Marenchuk was aware that Kippomee had a history of violence, was threatening suicide and had previously brought a lighter into an RCMP cell by hiding it in his underwear. 

The arrest

The incident began when two other officers arrived at a house in Pond Inlet on Sept. 10, 2015 after a homeowner called to report Kippomee was drunk and causing trouble. 

On the drive to the detachment, Kippomee was described by the arresting officers as intoxicated, angry and suicidal.

Kippomee was agitated and talked about wanting to "join his brother" who had recently killed himself, Cooper explained in her decision. 

Because of the threats of suicide, the officers decided to strip Kippomee in his cell and place him in a suicide prevention gown. 

The arresting officers got Kippomee mostly stripped down but he refused to remove his underwear. He was described as uncooperative despite officers' efforts to calm him. 

'It takes little time to self-harm'

Marenchuk, who had been at a meeting, was brought in to help. 

Once there, the detachment commander worried Kippomee could use his underwear as a ligature.

"A suicide threat must always be taken seriously," wrote the judge. "It takes little time to self-harm."

Marenchuk deployed his pepper spray under the closed cell door and the other officers were then able to enter and remove Kippomee's underwear and get him into the suicide prevention gown. 

When Kippomee was released the next morning, Marenchuk spoke with him to make sure he was okay. 

"[Kippomee] had no recollection of the event. When he was interviewed by the police approximately six weeks later, he had no recollection of being arrested or being in cells," wrote Cooper.

'They were left with few options'

The judge found the only other way to keep the inmate safe was to have an officer "wait out" Kippomee, which might have taken all night and was an unreasonable option.

"This is not a reasonable use of police resources nor does it provide for the possibility of an urgent call coming in, leaving [Kippomee] in the care of a guard was not an option as long as he still had the means to hurt himself," wrote Cooper. 

Both Crown and defence lawyers each called their own use of force experts during the trial.

Cooper found the Crown's expert did not consider the high rate of suicide in Nunavut, including instances which took place in police cells, Kippomee's violent criminal history, and the fact he had previously brought a lighter into RCMP cells by hiding it in his underwear.

"They were left with few options," wrote Cooper. "It was clear that some kind of force was going to be necessary; each time the officers had tried to approach [Kippomee] he would actively resist."