Video evidence helps acquit N.W.T. Indigenous man of assaulting RCMP while in custody
Judge says video contradicts RCMP story about what happened in Fort McPherson jail cell
CBC has obtained a video of a violent incident at the Fort McPherson RCMP detachment that cleared a man of charges of assaulting a peace officer and resisting arrest.
The video shows a man from Fort McPherson, N.W.T., being repeatedly punched and elbowed in the face, head and neck by a male RCMP officer as a female officer holds his legs down. The incident happened in a cell at the Fort McPherson detachment in the early morning hours of Oct. 25, 2019.
Citing "substantial discrepancies" between the account Const. Scott Thomas gave of the incident in court and what the video shows, a judge acquitted Travis Jerome after a trial held in Inuvik in February.
In a written decision issued March 23, Chief N.W.T. Territorial Court Judge Robert Gorin said it appeared in the video Jerome was reacting to pain being inflicted on him by Thomas.
"What I observed in the video was Const. Thomas lifting Mr. Jerome's right arm up behind his back in a position so extreme that it must have been causing a great deal of pain," wrote Gorin. "The wrist lock I observed would have undoubtedly caused Mr. Jerome further pain."'
I was trying to cover my face and get into a ball to protect myself."- Travis Jerome, Acquitted
Gorin said after Jerome twisted away to stop the pain, the video showed "Constable Thomas punch Mr. Jerome a number of times in the face and when Mr. Jerome attempted to crawl away, continue to strike him from behind on the back of the head. On each occasion, the officer struck him with considerable force."
In an emailed response, the communications strategist for the RCMP's G Division said no one there was willing to do an interview about the acquittal. Marie York-Condon said, "We will not be commenting further, as the case is closed, and respectfully decline an interview."
WATCH | Footage shows man getting elbowed and punched by RCMP in cell
Man says he was trying to escape pain
CBC was granted a copy of the video and photos of the damage to Jerome that were submitted as evidence during Jerome's trial after applying to the court for copies.
The video shows Jerome, with hands cuffed behind his back, enter the cell in front of Thomas and the female RCMP officer. Jerome, an Indigenous man, kneels then lies down on his stomach, apparently complying with the officers' orders.
I have seen enough videos of that nature that I just chose not to watch it.- Caroline Wawzonek, N.W.T. Justice minister
The female officer controls Jerome's legs as the other unlocks the handcuff on Jerome's right hand, twists his arm up behind his back and places his right knee on the back of Jerome's neck and his left knee on Jerome's back.
"I was trying to struggle away because of the discomfort from the arm and the knee on the back of my neck," said Jerome in an interview this week. "That's why I struggled away. Then he started punching me right after that."
The video shows Thomas punching and elbowing Jerome repeatedly in the face and back of the head and neck and pushing his head into the floor of the cell.
"I couldn't believe what he was doing," said Jerome, 32. "I was trying to cover my face and get into a ball to protect myself."
Jerome, who has an extensive criminal record, admits he was intoxicated at the time. He says he has been sober since the event.
During Jerome's trial, Thomas testified that Jerome pulled away after he removed a handcuff from his right hand, then rolled over and punched, or tried to punch, him in the face. Thomas was asked to identify the moment in the video where Jerome threw the punch.
"It's not real clear on the video, to be honest, it's not real clear on the video, which is unfortunate," responded Thomas, according to the judge's decision. "He did roll over and that's when he came up with his right hand."
I saw nothing that looked like anything other than a very minor movement of Mr. Jerome's right arm.- Chief N.W.T. Territorial Court Judge Gorin
In his decision, Chief Judge Gorin said, "With respect, the video was quite clear. I saw no punch or blow, I saw nothing that looked like anything other than a very minor movement of Mr. Jerome's right arm."
Gorin later added, "In fairness it is not impossible that Mr. Jerome actually did attempt to strike Const. Thomas after escaping the wrist and arm hold. That said, after viewing the video recording, I was and remain far from being sure that he did so."
Thomas said he arrested Jerome in response to a report of a domestic dispute between Jerome and his girlfriend. They handcuffed Jerome, who appeared to be intoxicated.
Thomas testified Jerome was co-operative when being arrested, but became angry and screamed and swore at them once he was in the police truck, banging on the partition between the front seats and the back seats.
Jerome said he was struggling because the officers had not allowed him to put shoes on before taking him outside to the truck over snow-covered ground. Jerome said his shoes were brought to him by the officers.
Jerome added that his mother has filed a complaint about the incident with the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP.
Justice minister won't say if use of force appropriate
N.W.T. Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek said she has discussed the incident with the RCMP, but would not say if she felt the force used was appropriate or not.
"It's not my role to come out now and lay a charge, investigate the charge, and decide the end result. So I'm just not in a position to say one way or the other," said Wawzonek, who was a defence lawyer in Yellowknife before entering politics.
Wawzonek said she received a copy of the video sent to her by CBC but did not view it.
"To be honest with you ... I have seen enough videos of that nature that I just chose not to watch it," Wawzonek told CBC.
- A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted Const. Scott Thomas saying "which is horseshit," based on the original transcript from court documents. In fact, Thomas said, “which is unfortunate," in an updated court transcript.Jun 17, 2020 8:55 AM CT