Yellowknife reporter roughed up by courthouse sheriff
Justice department refuses to talk about incident, found that action was appropriate
The Northwest Territories Justice Department found a courthouse sheriff did nothing wrong when he grabbed a Yellowknife reporter and shoved him out of the building. The reporter says all he did was ask the sheriff for the name of his supervisor.
A video of the incident caught on courthouse surveillance cameras shows reporter John McFadden and the sheriff having a brief conversation outside the downstairs courtroom at the Yellowknife courthouse.
The sheriff suddenly grabs the veteran reporter by the collar and the shoulder and shoves him toward the front doors of the courthouse.
After being pushed through the first of two heavy glass doors, McFadden falls and hits his head on the exterior door hard enough to partially open it. An RCMP officer and another sheriff then join the fray, handcuffing the dazed McFadden as he lies on his stomach.
"It happened so quickly I was literally stunned it was happening," said McFadden in an interview last week.
The incident happened the morning of September 17, 2013. McFadden, who was then working for the private radio station CJCD, was at the courthouse to cover a bail hearing for a 17-year-old girl accused of stabbing a man to death. McFadden says during the course of the hearing he left the small courtroom to go to the washroom.
"When I got back, the sheriff said, 'I gave your seat away, you can't come in,'" McFadden said. "He seemed to be quite pleased with himself that my seat was gone and I couldn't go back into the courtroom."
Though the incident happened more than three years ago, McFadden did not find out about the video until recently. He filed an access to information request then went to court to get a copy of it.
Difficult to assess whether the use of force was appropriate, says expert
An expert in the use of force by police says its difficult to assess whether the use of force was appropriate without knowing what was said just before the sheriff grabbed McFadden.
James Cassells, a retired Toronto police officer and former use of force instructor, says even if the sheriff ordered McFadden out of the building, that doesn't necessarily mean the order was lawful. "If it was not, that officer has committed an assault."
McFadden says the sheriff never told him to leave, all he did was ask the sheriff several times for the name of his supervisor.
"His response is what you see in the video."
Cassells says from the standpoint of officer's safety, the sheriff increased the chance of injury by shoving the reporter out on his own rather than calling for assistance before taking action.
The first of several conflicts with local authorities
The incident happened during McFadden's first year working in Yellowknife. Though it was the reporter's first run-in with authority in the city, it would not be his last.
In April 2015 the RCMP banned him from a press conference. It gave no public explanation beyond that it was "a personal matter." Information CBC obtained under an access to information request revealed that the main reason was that RCMP officials perceived his reporting as biased against police.
- Reporter banned due to perceived 'bias' against police, RCMP emails suggest
- Yellowknife journalist found not guilty of obstruction
Three months later, McFadden was charged with obstruction after taking photos of the RCMP searching a van in the city's downtown.
A judge found him not guilty last month. Handing down his decision, Judge Garth Malakoe had some stern words for the three RCMP officers who testified during the trial.
He said one was "evasive, if not obstinate" and all three showed a "certain willingness to exaggerate" during their testimony, making it hard for him to completely trust them as witnesses.
No disciplinary action against sheriff
No one in the territorial Justice Department was willing to be interviewed about the incident or the lack of any written rules governing media access to the courts.
In an email response, deputy minister Martin Goldney said, "The Department of Justice investigated the circumstances around the incident depicted on the videotape and was satisfied that the matter was handled appropriately."
McFadden says he was never made aware that the incident was investigated.
The incident highlights a major gap in the Northwest Territories courts — there are no written rules defining what media can and cannot do.
Some sheriffs allow media to bring bags containing their notebooks, pens and gear into courtrooms, some do not. A sheriff once attempted to bar a CBC reporter from entering a courtroom because the matter was covered by a publication ban. Some sheriffs order media out of the courtroom as soon as the judge closes court, some don't.
Last year a sheriff told a CBC cameraperson an area of the parking lot beside the courthouse was off limits to media. For years media had been taking pictures from that space of suspects entering and leaving courthouse. The department later acknowledged there is no such rule and apologized for the mistake.
After McFadden's incident, three years ago, the Justice Department said it was drafting written rules for media. Last year, after apologizing for the incident with the cameraperson, it said the same thing. In an email this week, it stated a draft of written rules will be produced early in the new year.
Shortly after McFadden was roughed up, the department paid him $120 to replace pants and a shirt of his that were torn. McFadden says he also suffered a gash to his knee.
McFadden said early last week he wants $10,000 in compensation for pain and suffering he incurred as a result of the incident.
At the time, he allowed CBC to view the tape but would not know until later that week if he would provide a copy. He said that decision would be based on the outcome of a conversation he was to have with deputy minister of justice Martin Goldney.
He says he spoke briefly with Goldney on Wednesday.
"It doesn't appear that the Justice Department, at this point in time, is willing to offer any amount of compensation because of this incident to a level that I would be satisfied with," he said in an interview on Thursday.
McFadden says he has not ruled out suing the department for damages.