Nova Scotia

Jailing of domestic violence complainant condemned by mental health law expert

A law professor says the arrest and detention of Serrece Winter, a Dartmouth, N.S., woman who was a domestic violence complainant, was a "horror show" that could discourage other victims from coming forward.

Dalhousie professor says detention of Dartmouth, N.S., woman was a 'horror show'

Law professor Archie Kaiser is calling for accountability and improvements after Winter's imprisonment, which went 'off the rails.' (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

NOTE: This story contains disturbing details and images.

An expert in criminal and mental disability law says the decision to arrest a domestic violence complainant, put her in a restraint chair and charge her with assaulting a peace officer is "catastrophic," and may have a chilling effect on victims already reluctant to report abuse.

Archie Kaiser, a professor at Dalhousie University's Schulich School of Law and department of psychiatry, reviewed surveillance video of the jailing of Serrece Winter, 45, of Dartmouth, N.S., at Halifax police headquarters on Nov. 20, 2019. 

She was arrested after a judge issued a warrant at the Crown's request when she failed to appear in court that day to testify against her on-again, off-again boyfriend, who was charged with assaulting her.

"This is just catastrophic, everything that occurred from the start to the finish of the interactions," said Kaiser.

The details of the case were published by CBC News on Monday. Winter said in an interview that on the day of her arrest she had been at home drinking beer to find the courage to testify, and had passed out.

Serrece Winter has been charged with assaulting a peace officer in the Halifax Regional Police lockup after she was jailed for missing court because she says she was too afraid to testify against her former boyfriend. (Robert Short/CBC)

Her ex-partner had been facing 14 charges, including choking, assault causing bodily harm and unlawful confinement. Those charges were dropped on Friday, however a peace bond was issued ordering him to keep his distance from Winter and not contact her for one year. He faces another five domestic violence-related charges.

Winter is part Black and part Indigenous, suffers from PTSD, bipolar disorder and depression, and has a history of being assaulted by partners.

What happened at the Halifax Regional Police lockup was captured on video surveillance footage shared with CBC News.

It wasn't long after Winter entered the booking area that she became agitated, complaining that officers had "put the victim in jail." She disclosed her mental health conditions, and shortly after was locked in a jail cell.

Within a few minutes, she began crying and smashed her head about 36 times against a cement wall.

After she stopped, seven officers came to the cell. She was pulled out and two of them covered her mouth with their hands as they pinned her head back and strapped her shoulders, wrists and ankles into a restraint chair, where she was held for just over an hour.

The footage shows just 13 minutes passed between Winter challenging her arrest in the booking area and the moment officers forced her into the chair. She was charged with assault for allegedly kicking a booking officer's leg during the ordeal.

Seven officers were on hand as two of them covered Winter's mouth while strapping her into a restraint chair. (Halifax Regional Police surveillance video/screen capture)

Kaiser said the officers displayed a lack of respect and sensitivity, which added to Winter's frustration at being jailed as a domestic violence complainant. He called the subsequent use of a restraint chair an extraordinary and unnecessary measure.

"Start to finish, this looks like a textbook of, if not absolute errors, at least failing to live up to appropriate standards for responding to witnesses in case of spousal or intimate partner violence," he said.

Among concerns, he questioned whether it was necessary for Winter to be arrested. He noted Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service policy clearly states that an arrest warrant is not meant to punish the victim.

"That's a critical thing here. I have no doubt that this woman would have experienced everything that happened to her as a form of punishment," he said.

The prosecution service has said it tried to accommodate Winter's safety concerns with respect to her testifying, but stands by its decision to issue an arrest warrant.

'Traumatic use of force'

Kaiser said the vulnerabilities of Winter in a domestic violence case demand a higher level of scrutiny, accountability and improvements.

"If I were the director of public prosecutions, I would be urgently examining the case to see whether there was conformity with the kind of restrained, compassionate, supportive aspects of the spousal violence policy," he said.

Upon her detention, Kaiser said a lawyer should have been offered immediately, as is her charter right. 

Though Winter disclosed her mental illness and then self-harmed by repeatedly banging her head, Kaiser noted officers failed to seek immediate medical attention. Instead, seven officers arrived to subdue Winter by grabbing her, pulling her hair and putting their hands over her mouth as they strapped her into a restraint chair. 

Police have declined an interview request about whether the use of force was appropriate.

An officer's notes, provided in disclosure to Winter's lawyer, indicate the chair was used because she was self-harming. Kaiser questioned whether the tool was necessary because Winter had stopped banging her head. She was clutching her body, crying.

"Somebody who was vulnerable and distraught was dealt with in a way that didn't recognize their mental health needs, didn't bring in experts, and exposed them to a kind of traumatic use of force that — I think we have to see as a society is inadequate," said Kaiser.

Winter was left strapped in the restraint chair in the drunk tank for just over an hour. (Halifax Regional Police video/screen capture)

He fears the surveillance video will have a chilling effect on victims of intimate partner violence, which he said police Chief Dan Kinsella and Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey should be concerned about.

Without accountability and improvements, victims — particularly those mental health vulnerabilities — might be discouraged from reporting domestic violence and co-operating with an investigation, he said.

"They might well fear that they, too, could be the victim of a system that doesn't show that it supports and cares and respects for victims," he said.

Accountability may be sought through several means in Nova Scotia, including the police watchdog Serious Incident Response Team, internal discipline processes and the Police Review Board.

Kaiser also noted the justice minister has the power to order an investigation under the Police Act. That was done in 2011, two years after the death of Victoria Paul, a Mi'kmaw woman, in the Truro police lockup. She had been picked up for public intoxication and died of a stroke in a jail cell.

Warning: This video contains disturbing content

Surveillance video of Serrece Winter in Halifax jail cell

12 months ago
8:03
(Warning: This video contains disturbing content) Surveillance cameras inside Halifax Regional Police headquarters show the conversation Serrece Winter had with officers before she was put in a jail cell, what happened inside the cell and how she was subsequently placed in a restraint chair. 8:03

Kaiser said Halifax Regional Police have had other troubling situations with people in distress in the lockup, and pointed to the cases of Howard Hyde and Corey Rogers.

In 2007, Hyde, who had schizophrenia, was Tasered by police in the booking area, sent to hospital and later died at the Burnside jail. A full public inquiry was ordered and resulted in 80 recommendations, including more training for police.

Rogers was arrested for public intoxication and died of asphyxiation in the lockup in 2016. Two Halifax Regional Police booking officers were found guilty of criminal negligence causing death.

Kaiser also questions whether it is in the public interest to continue prosecuting Winter on a charge assaulting a peace officer while she was being dragged out of the jail cell. He said the charge is difficult to prove and to continue would leave a "stain on the justice system."

"She was a suffering victim who, you know, was acting out as a result of her mental health vulnerabilities, which weren't recognized and weren't treated when she was in jail," said Kaiser.

"This is a horror show for her. And she's worse off than she was before, which is already bad enough."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.

now