RCMP not responsible for man's death in custody, Manitoba police watchdog finds

A Manitoba police watchdog investigation found Thompson RCMP were not responsible for the death of a man who had been placed in a cell to sober up in 2021.

Man died of brain bleed, which is believed to have happened when he fell before being brought into custody

A closeup shows a sign reading "Thompson Detachment," below a plaque with the RCMP logo.
The Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba said Thompson RCMP weren't responsible for the death of a man who was lodged in a detachment cell to sober up. (Submitted by RCMP)

Thompson RCMP were not responsible for the death of an alleged intoxicated man after he'd been put in a police detachment cell to sober up, a Manitoba police watchdog investigation found. 

RCMP in Thompson, about 650 kilometres north of Winnipeg, were called to attend to a heavily intoxicated man who fell down outside of a hotel just before 6 p.m. on Sept. 13, 2021. They took him to the police detachment and put him in a cell to sober up.

The man, who police said was homeless, was found to be unresponsive in the cell just after 11 p.m. and he was transferred to the Thompson General Hospital, where he died the next morning.

The Independent Investigation Unit (IIU) of Manitoba investigated the incident and found the police didn't contribute to his death, according to the final report released Thursday.

The man was one of about 1,000 people who are detained in Thompson, with a population of about 13,000, every year under the Intoxicated Persons Detention Act. That allows police to take a person, whose intoxication makes them a danger to themselves or others, into custody. 

Advocates have been calling for a sobering centre in the city for years, but despite a funding announcement by the province in 2020, no such place exists yet.

"The only facility capable of providing a safe setting for an intoxicated person was the RCMP detachment," the report stated.

IIU investigators spoke with a witness who called police to have the man picked up and also checked video surveillance from the hotel where the witness works.

The witness, who told investigators the man was about 30 years old, saw the man fall and called 911 because they believed he was very intoxicated. Investigators later watched security footage and saw the man hit his head outside the hotel.

Police officers who responded to the call told watchdog investigators they didn't know the man was injured, and he didn't say he was hurt.

He fell a few other times when he was being brought to the detachment and on his way into the cell, but at no point did he hit his head, according to the report.

Police said the man stayed at the police detachment regularly to sober up, and none of his actions were out of the ordinary.

However, they said he normally woke up when called to, and he didn't on this day.

An autopsy found the cause of death was a brain bleed and that the man had another brain injury and liver disease.

The chief medical examiner weighed in on the man's autopsy and said that his previous conditions make "the effects of any blunt head trauma worse," according to the report.

His liver disease also likely made the bleeding more significant in his brain, the examiner said.

The chief medical examiner said if the man had received prompt medical attention he might or might not have survived, and that there were no guarantees.

Hospital staff may also have chalked his symptoms up to his severe intoxication, the medical examiner surmised.

Police watchdog says cells not appropriate for detox

Zane Tessler, the IIU's civilian director, suggested that a police detachment is not an appropriate place for intoxicated people.

"It appears evident that a police cell environment is not designed to provide the necessary medical oversight that a designated and adequately staffed detoxication center would be able to provide," he wrote in the report.

"While outside the mandate of IIU in this investigation, I would leave the question for the continued use of police facilities to provide safe harbouring for intoxicated individuals to be reconsidered and reviewed by the appropriate authorities."

Tessler also suggested that providing medical oversight to intoxicated people is not part of a policing job, nor an appropriate use of resources.

A 2015 inquest into the death of Jeffrey Ray Mallet, who died in 2008 after being taken into custody for being drunk, called for a sobering centre in Thompson.

In 2020, the provincial government pledged $2.8 million for a sobering facility in the city, aiming to create a safe place by late 2021.

To date, there is not a facility and  extensive renovations need to take place before one can be up and running.