Former director of Ontario’s police watchdog questions force used by Thompson RCMP officer

The former head of Ontario’s police watchdog is questioning the force a Thompson RCMP officer used against a First Nations man, who was punched twice by the officer after throwing a hat at him.

Howard Morton, who served as the director of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) from 1992 to 1995, said an officer has the right to defend himself but only to a certain extent.

We can only use the amount of force required to defend ourselves,” said Morton. And maybe one punch might have been [self-defence] if he thought he was going to do something else, but why the second punch?”

Morton’s comments come following a CBC Investigation that revealed Const. Jeremiah Dumont-Fontaine punched 50-year-old Brian Halcrow twice after Halcrow threw a hat at him following an altercation outside the Thompson Inn in June of 2019.

“In a hypothetical situation like that, that degree of force would be excessive,” Morton said. 

Court documents obtained by CBC say surveillance video viewed by an investigator for Manitoba’s police watchdog showed the hat fly by Dumont-Fontaine and hit the ground.

A statement by Dumont-Fontaine said the hat hit him and that “fearing further assault,” the officer punched Halcrow twice and arrested him.

Does that mean the guy has another hat?” asked Morton.

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Halcrow was charged with three counts of assaulting an officer and causing a disturbance following the incident.

Seven months later, on Jan. 5, 2020, Halcrow killed himself.

Family and friends say he hadn’t been able to work full-time because of multiple strokes and was terrified of returning to jail.

RCMP officer charged with assault 

During this same period, Manitoba’s police watchdog was investigating Dumont-Fontaine and he was formally charged Jan. 3 with assault causing bodily harm. 

Dumont-Fontaine was notified and arrested on Jan. 7, two days after Halcrow’s death. Halcrow died not knowing the officer had been charged.

The new documents were filed as part of the battle over Dumont-Fontaine’s notes that will go to Manitoba’s Cout of Queen’s Bench on Friday.

Brian Halcrow with his nephew. (Submitted by Megan Thorne)

The RCMP are trying to stop an order that would mandate they hand over vital information to Manitoba’s police watchdog, the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba.

The IIU and the RCMP declined to comment on this story as the matter is before the courts. 

Manitoba’s Police Services Act prohibits police agencies from providing the notes of a subject officer to the IIU. 

The argument is that this protects the charter rights against self-incrimination in a criminal case.

Cops should have to give notes: former police watchdog

However, Morton has long argued it shouldn’t apply to police officers.

Morton says that another element of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms — section one, which says they are “reasonable limits” under a “free and democratic society” in which the charter should be applied — should be used in this case. 

Howard Morton, who served as the director of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) from 1992 to 1995, said it is likely excessive use of force if you punch someone twice after they throw a hat. (CBC News)

He argues police officers are different from regular citizens, as they can use force and have other special powers.

“My view clearly is that the judge should order the notes be given to IIU,” he said. 

“I think they should have to submit to an interview using the same sort of logic.”

Dumont-Fontaine refused to give the IIU his notes and refused to do an interview with investigators. 

This is not the first time the IIU has taken law enforcement to court to gain access to an officer’s notes.

Manitoba Police Services Act under review

Last year, the Manitoba government released a report recommending 70 changes to the Police Services Act.

This included recommendations to define what constitutes officer notes, but nothing specific on forcing law enforcement officials to hand them over to the IIU during an investigation. 

Justice Minister Cameron Friesen said in a written statement the government plans to pass legislation this year that will increase transparency — but he did not get into specifics. 

Arlen Dumas, the Grand Chief for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said what he read about Halcrow’s case is appalling.

He hopes part of the proposed changes to the Act will included ending the protection of police officer’s notes.  

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said what he read about Halcrow’s case is appalling. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

“Unless this is changed in legislation, the IIU will continue to play a part in the disproportionate rates of First Nations arrests and incarcerations and subject officers will continue to be found not responsible for acts of brutality and/or justified in the use of deadly force,” said Dumas.   

In 2020, the IIU took the Winnipeg Police Service to court in order to get the notes from a cadet who was a witness to the Taser death of Matthew Fosseneuve at the hands of police.

Winnipeg police argued cadets are civilian officers and therefore beyond the IIU’s authority to probe.

A judge ultimately decided that the IIU could not investigate with less than full disclosure from witness officers, which in their view should include cadets.

Dumont-Fontaine’s case is scheduled to be heard by a jury in January of next year — likely before a decision is made on access to two reports from the night of the incident written by him.

Both sides will likely appeal any decision made by a judge at the Court of Queen’s Bench and it will likely wind up before the Supreme Court of Canada, Morton said.