Manitoba

'My family is still without answers': Advocates want accountability after 6 deaths in Winnipeg police custody

Within a six-month period, six men have died while in custody of the Winnipeg police and the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba is investigating the circumstances.

5 of 6 men became unresponsive while or immediately after being arrested

Sean Thompson's sister Erica Thompson, left, and her cousin Cheyanne Pruden aren't satisfied with the information they've received so far about his June 26 death while in police custody. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Within a six month period, six men have died while in custody of the Winnipeg police and the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba is investigating the circumstances.

IIU reports say five of the six men became unresponsive during or after they were arrested and later died. The other man was found unresponsive in a holding cell before his death. 

Some of the men's families, including relatives of Sean Thompson, 30, who died after an encounter with Winnipeg police in June, are still seeking answers about what happened and are now joining a national call for more transparency when it comes to in-custody deaths.

Thompson's sister, Erica, will speak on a panel Sunday evening alongside Yusuf Faqiri, who is spearheading calls for justice reform.

"My family is still without answers," said Erica Thompson.

Yusuf's brother Soleiman Faqiri died in temporary custody in an Ontario jail after being involved in a "brutal" encounter with prison guards, according to eyewitnesses.

"[It's time] for us to come together to work toward to our tragedies and try to do a much bigger fight so we can help other victims and other families. They need to have a voice," said Faqiri.

Faqiri and Thompson will speak at the Magnus Eliason Recreation Centre with three other relatives of men who have died in custody.

'We have to have a national conversation'

Soleiman, who had schizophrenia, was arrested in Ajax, Ont., by Durham Regional Police after allegedly stabbing a neighbour with an "edged weapon." Instead of being taken to a hospital, Faqiri was taken to a jail, where eleven days later, he died.

"Sadly, this story needs to be heard, because this tragedy could have been prevented. He was a mentally ill man who needed help, yet lost his life," said Yusuf Faqiri.

Soleiman Faqiri, 30, died shortly after being restrained by guards. (Submitted by Yusuf Faqiri)

Following Soleiman's death, 15 guards were suspended, but even the details around their suspensions were limited.

Faqiri is nearing the end of his cross-Canada tour to make the public aware of what happened to his brother, as well as provide other families with similar consequences a venue to share their pain.

"It's been overwhelming, it's been an incredible support we've had... every city I've gone in, there are stories that are similar to this," he said.

"This tour isn't just about Soleiman. It's a much bigger problematic issue that we have to have a national conversation." 

Limited information

Not enough is being done, said Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land, assistant professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Winnipeg and a collective member of Bar None, which is a prisoner solidarity group that wants to abolish prisons.

"Some of the families who have lost loved ones in jail or to police violence, one of the big struggles that they have is trying to get any information at all about what has happened to their loved ones," she said.

Yusuf Faqiri says his family remains desperate for closure in his younger brother's death. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

Dobchuk-Land said Thompson's family only learned the exact area where he died this past Saturday.

Erica Thompson said they were first notified 30 hours after her brother's death and nearly four months later, little to no information has been released about his death.

"There's no support for families who are going through this. You're told they just passed away, and here is what we found," said Thompson.

Brownyn Dobchuk-Land, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg. (Submitted by Brownyn Dobchuk-Land)

Dobchuk-Land, who helped organize Sunday's panel, said families are often shut down when trying to pursue answers.

"Families are made to feel like they're crazy for asking questions, like they're crazy for suspecting that there's more going on than the official reports suggest," she said.

Health care not a priority

In terms of deaths in jails and remand centres, Dobchuk-Land said by nature, those places have a precedent of being unsafe for prisoners.

"Jails ... are facilities of of punishment. They're not structured to care for the people in them. They fundamentally never will be," she said. "[In jails] violence happens often, it's not just these exceptional one-off events."

Change is being discussed. The judge overseeing the inquest into the death of Errol Greene, who died in custody at the Winnipeg Remand Centre in May 2016, recommended independent reviews of the medical unit at the remand centre.

Greene, who had epilepsy, died after not being given access to his anti-seizure medication. He suffered two seizures, was restrained by staff and became unresponsive. 

Bradley Errol Greene, more commonly known as Errol Greene, died on May 1 after suffering from an epileptic seizure. He was an inmate at the Winnipeg Remand Centre at the time. (Courtesy of Rochelle Pranteau)

While Dobchuk-Land welcomes the independent review, she feels due to the power structure in jails, nurses will never be able to deliver the quality of care needed to intervene and save lives.

"Nurses who were at the remand centre who attended to Errol Greene while he was having a seizure reported that is was their job to defer to the authority of the guards," she said. "Health-care providers will never not be forced to defer to the authority of guards."

Faqiri said while the recommendations to improve jails are welcome, such as in the Greene case, he added that it doesn't mean anything if the policies are not being adopted.

"Rarely do you have the recommendation really being implemented or really being followed by these institutions," said Faqiri.

Faqiri, Thompson and her family all want answers.

"There has been no accountability. The families get there and their loved one's in a body bag, yet the individuals [who] are responsible for their deaths are held to no account," Faqiri said.

Clarifications

  • We initially reported that five men have died in custody of the Winnipeg Police Service in the past six months. In fact, six men have died in custody of Winnipeg police. Upon inquiry from CBC News after this story was published, the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba said a man who became unresponsive during arrest on May 21 has since died.
    Oct 07, 2019 1:14 PM CT

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