Justice minister pledges better training, more oversight after video shows woman punched by safety officer

Manitoba’s justice minister is committing to better training of community safety officers, and promises to look at increased oversight of the officers, following the release of a video showing a woman being knocked unconscious at an RCMP detachment in Thompson.

However, Cliff Cullen said he is not ready to order a further investigation into what took place on the night in January 2018 when Genesta Garson, then 19, was punched by a safety officer at the detachment.

The video showing the incident has highlighted gaps that may exist when it comes to training of safety officers.

“Like other Manitobans, I found it disturbing, obviously regrettable on so many fronts,” Cullen said.

“So we obviously here at Manitoba Justice take this very seriously. We’ve been doing our own background work to see how things unfolded since the incident.”

WATCH | Surveillance video from the RCMP detachment (WARNING: The video contains graphic and disturbing images):

Genesta Garson was detained at the RCMP detachment in Thompson, Man. on Jan. 6, 2018 after officers suspected her of being drunk. This is the security video taken from that night, which shows an officer knocking her unconscious. 1:49

Garson was picked up by the safety officers, who are quasi bylaw officers employed by the City of Thompson, on Jan. 6, 2018, on the suspicion of being intoxicated.

She was taken to the RCMP detachment, when two safety officers and an RMCP officer asked her to remove an extra layer of clothing.

Security footage, obtained by CBC through a court application, shows that she removed her belt and threw it at one of the safety officers, who then punched her and knocked her unconscious. She was then dragged to a cell and eventually taken away by ambulance.

Because safety officers do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Manitoba Independent Investigation Unit, no investigation was ordered by the provincial police watchdog.

No ‘natural oversight body’ for officers: Cullen

Cullen says the province is working to change that, as it reviews Manitoba’s Police Services Act, which details who falls under the IIU.

“There may be a bit of a gap in terms of the oversight of the existing legislation here. There’s not a natural oversight body to review the activities of community safety officers,” he said.

“I think this incident has given us the ability to kind of shine a light on that, so that we are respectful of that. And I’m mindful of that.”

Justice Minister Cliff says he will wait until a civil lawsuit is complete before deciding if a further investigation is needed. (CBC)

Cullen also said the province will review safety officers’ training.

“We’re looking at making sure that CSOs [community safety officers] are provided the proper training so that this type of situation doesn’t happen again,” he said.

Community safety officers have existed in Thompson since 2016, after changes made to the Police Services Act and funding assistance from the provincial government.

They have the power in Thompson to detain people under acts such as the Intoxicated Persons Detention Act and the Mental Health Act.

The role was created as a way to alleviate some of the pressure on local RCMP, to allow them to focus on protection and investigating larger crimes.

3 weeks of training

Their salaries were initially paid partially by the government of Manitoba, but now are paid for by the city.

Officials with the City of Thompson have declined to comment on the specifics of Garson’s case, because she is currently suing the city and RCMP over the incident.

Safety officers receive three weeks of training, which includes sessions on use of force and diversity training, according to a syllabus provided by the City of Thompson.

Nahanni Fontaine, the Manitoba NDP’s justice critic, told CBC this week that Cullen should exercise his powers under the Police Services Act to order a further investigation by outside law enforcement.

Cullen said he is waiting to see how the lawsuit resolves before doing anything. The RCMP have also committed to reviewing the incident, following CBC’s reports. 

“There’s an opportunity for us to see how that works, what details … and recommendations come out of that. And we’ll always be mindful of that outcome,” he said.