Winnipeg police didn't notify watchdog after man allegedly knocked unconscious during arrest

A February incident where an off-duty Winnipeg police officer allegedly knocked a suspect unconscious wasn’t reported to the province’s police watchdog, and one criminologist says it shows how flawed police oversight can be.

February incident demonstrates flaws in reporting system, says criminologist

Court records show police did not report an incident where a suspect was struck in the face with a baton, which the man said knocked him unconscious. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

A February incident where an off-duty Winnipeg officer allegedly knocked a suspect unconscious wasn't reported to the province's police watchdog, and one criminologist says it shows how flawed oversight of law enforcement can be.

On Feb. 23, an off-duty Winnipeg officer witnessed a theft at a Liquor Mart on Dakota Street. 

After calling for backup, the officer, Patrol Sgt. Jeffrey Norman, followed the alleged thieves to the area of Sterling Avenue and St. Anne's Road. He was assaulted by the suspects, but managed to apprehend one man, according to a police news release from February.

During a bail hearing for the man on Feb. 25, defence lawyer Mitch Enright told the court that his client alleges Norman hit him with a baton during the incident.

The man said he hit Norman over the head with a liquor bottle, and Norman then struck him in the face with the baton, causing him to black out. 

"The next thing he remembers is waking up in a pool of his own blood," Enright said, according to court documents.

The accused appeared in court via video conference, with a number of stitches in his forehead and scabs on his ear, the court heard. 

There was no publication ban placed on the bail hearing. 

The court also heard that during the incident, Norman was also hit with a tire iron by one of the three suspects. He suffered a concussion, a sprained wrist and lacerations to the back of his head during the arrest, court heard. 

Patrol Sgt. Jeffrey Norman is shown in this photo at a news conference in April. (CBC)

Under the Police Services Act, police agencies are required to report certain types of incidents to the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba, such as fatalities or severe injuries.

Kelly Dehn, manager of public affairs for the Winnipeg Police Service, said the incident wasn't reported to the IIU because the man's injuries did not meet the definition of serious injury laid out in the act. 

The act defines a serious injury as one of the following:

  • A fracture of the skull, jaw, vertebrae, rib, humerus, radius, ulna, femur, tibia, or fibula.
  • Burns, cuts or lacerations that require admission to a hospital on an in-patient basis.
  • The loss of any part of the body.
  • The loss of vision or hearing.
  • Internal injuries that require admission to a hospital on an in-patient basis.
  • Any injury caused by the discharge of a firearm.

Jack Marquardson, a spokesperson for the IIU — which is mandated to investigate serious incidents involving police in Manitoba, whether on or off duty — confirmed that the police watchdog was not notified of the incident by Winnipeg police. 

"Hence, the IIU has not initiated an investigation, and has no further comment on the matter," he said via email.

The incident came to light following a Winnipeg Free Press investigation published this week.

Flawed reporting system 

Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Winnipeg, says being knocked unconscious should unquestionably be considered a serious injury.

She said the incident demonstrates the problem with the IIU's reporting model, including the fact the police watchdog is only able to function properly if the police decide to co-operate. 

"We know from testimonies of people who have been victims of police assaults that they happen far more often than they are investigated by the IIU or other independent bodies," she said. 

"So I think that this should be one example that we take among many to call into question the model of supposed accountability or oversight that's in place."

Even if the officer was assaulted first, it wouldn't excuse the alleged use of force against the man who was arrested, she said. 

"I think if we're going to publicly fund responses to violence, they shouldn't perpetrate violence in response to violence. So I think that that's a little bit ridiculous," she said. 

"But it is an example of the fact that police have very few tools at their disposal to de-escalate or actually respond to violent people in ways other than with violence."

Past complaints 

The officer involved in the Feb. 23 incident has been named in at least two lawsuits in the last five years alleging excessive use of force.

He was also involved in an incident last year involving a cyclist who says he was pepper-sprayed in the face moments after he asked the officer to turn off his vehicle's high-beam headlights.

The cyclist, Thomas Krause, said the last he heard is that the investigation is still ongoing.

"It seems like they're kind of dragging their feet," he said.

In one lawsuit filed in March 2015, the plaintiffs alleged that Norman assaulted the father of a young man he was in the process of arresting, striking him multiple times with a baton while his son sat in the back of a police cruiser. 

The man was taken to hospital as a result. 

In a statement of defence, a lawyer for the City of Winnipeg denied these allegations, saying that Norman used force to subdue the father after being attacked by him. 

But Dobchuk-Land says a broader conversation is needed about the oversight, or lack thereof, of policing, rather than focusing on allegations against one officer. 

"Policing is very immune to scrutiny and oversight because it relies so heavily on the discretion of the officer," she said. 

"If we start to question too much police officers' judgment, it undermines their central role. And so we rarely see that oversight bodies are able to question that judgment.

"It always comes down to 'the police made the right decision.'"