The question of whether a Winnipeg police officer acted appropriately when he seized the camera of a veteran photojournalist will be decided by a provincial judge during a rare public hearing that began Tuesday.
Chris Procaylo, a photographer for the Winnipeg Sun, filed a complaint with Manitoba’s Law Enforcement Review Agency in 2017 following an incident where a police officer took his equipment after he photographed them subduing a man outside of Lord Selkirk Furniture on Main Street.
“I felt disappointed, threatened and intimidated,” Procaylo testified Tuesday.
“I felt like I was being prevented from doing my job.”
The hearing is the first to happen in response to a complaint made to LERA since one was held in 2017.
“These matters raise the issue of not only how a member of public is treated by a law enforcement officer, but also raises the larger concern of improper interference with freedom of the press,” said Nicole Watson, Procaylo’s lawyer during her opening statement.
Procaylo alleged the officer committed three acts of disciplinary default, including abuse of authority, during the interaction on Dec. 2, 2017.
During his sworn testimony, he told the court he arrived at the scene after receiving a tip that there was a “ruckus in progress” on Main Street and someone had a weapon.
He said he went to the scene to take photos, wearing a lanyard that identified him as a working photojournalist.
He testified that he believed it was in the public interest for him to photograph what was happening.
When he arrived, he took photos of a man on the ground inside the store being subdued by police. He went to the curb to wait for the man to be carried out after he saw the ambulance arrive.
He told the courtroom as he waited, he heard someone yell behind him, “move, move, move.”
He turned around and saw it was a police officer who told him to leave the scene and swore at him. Procaylo said he moved about 50 feet away but stayed on the scene.
The officer later returned and told Procaylo they were seizing the camera as part of their investigation.
It was agreed by the officer’s lawyer and Procaylo’s lawyer that this was a “warrantless seizure.”
Procaylo told the court the incident changed how he felt about police and made him fearful that he wouldn’t get “services” by police after he filed the LERA complaint.
He said he felt “bullied” and the incident made it more difficult for him to do his job because of how often he has to interact with police.
Public hearings rare
A public hearing only takes place after the commissioner of LERA reviews the complaint and refers it to a hearing to determine the merits of the complaint.
The agency is the sole public body that investigates public complaints about officer misconduct.
While they receive over 100 complaints a year, a CBC investigation found that most are dismissed by LERA’s commissioner or abandoned by the complainant.
The last one was held in 2017, after an officer was alleged to have threatened to harm a city business for their perceived refusal to turn over surveillance footage. He was demoted in 2019 after a judge found he was in disciplinary default.
If the judge finds the officer was in disciplinary default, the penalty can range from admonition to termination.
The hearing is scheduled for five days, with the police officer and his partner both expected to testify this week.