Security videos that show RCMP punching Indigenous men in Thompson point to tense relationship
WARNING: This story includes graphic images and details of violent encounters with police.
It’s just after 6 p.m. on a June 2019 evening in the northern Manitoba city of Thompson.
The sun is still up, and RCMP officers have been called to a disturbance at the bar inside the Thompson Inn.
Surveillance video shows a calm conversation between an officer and a 50-year-old man wearing a baseball cap. The two exit the bar, with another officer following.
Here, the outdoor security video shows a sudden change in the situation.
The man, Brian Halcrow, throws his hat. It is seen flying through the air.
The officer turns around, hits the man twice in the head and arrests him.
This video is one of two obtained by CBC News that show cases of an RCMP officer in Thompson punching an Indigenous man while responding to a call.
WATCH | Security camera shows interaction outside the Thompson Inn (WARNING: graphic and disturbing images):
“I’ve heard a lot of stories,” Patsy Halcrow, Brian’s sister, told CBC News when asked about people in Thompson having negative interactions with police.
“It does happen to them, but they don’t say anything,” she said. “There’s a lot of people in the north where it happens.… Brian’s probably not the first one.”
Const. Jeremiah Dumont-Fontaine was charged with assaulting Brian Halcrow following a six-month investigation by Manitoba’s Independent Investigation Unit, the province’s police watchdog, in early 2020.
The charge came the same week that Halcrow died by suicide.
The other video, taken in September 2018, shows an RCMP officer punching a man three times outside Thompson’s homeless shelter after the man spit in the direction of officers.
WATCH | Security camera shows RCMP punching man (WARNING: graphic and disturbing images):
After seeing that video, the operator of the shelter reported the incident to the Independent Investigative Unit.
Following an investigation, the agency charged Const. Greg Oke with assaulting William Farrow, 63.
Both Farrow and Halcrow were charged with assaulting a police officer — Farrow for spitting and Halcrow for throwing his hat at the officer.
The stories of these two assaults point to tension between police and those living on the margins in Thompson, a city of just over 13,000 people about 650 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
RCMP say officers in the city are often sent to calls that involve people in various states of crisis, dealing with issues that include addictions, homelessness or intergenerational trauma.
Members of the community, meanwhile, say RCMP need more cultural training on how they work with Indigenous people.
Sister hopes more come forward
The Halcrow family is originally from Tataskweyak Cree Nation, about 120 kilometres northeast of Thompson, where Brian and his mother lived.
“Brian looked after my mom,” Patsy said.
Their mother doesn’t say very much about Brian, “but when she does, you could tell it is very painful.”
Patsy is speaking out because she wants others to come forward if they are mistreated by police.
“People don’t say nothing…. [Indigenous people] don’t say a lot of things because they don’t have people behind them to fight for them,” she said.
“I hope it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”
Brian Halcrow had a history of depression, and the assault charge against him weighed heavily, his sister said.
When he took his own life, “I think he already made up his mind then that he was not going to jail,” Patsy said.
“We always think about what he would have been doing today.”
A judge acquitted Dumont-Fontaine of assault in January, saying there wasn’t proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the force he used was unnecessary, given the risk he may have felt.
Oke pleaded guilty in 2021 and was given a conditional discharge.
Both remain on active duty.
The RCMP officers both say they were assaulted first.
During his assault trial, Dumont-Fontaine testified that he punched Halcrow because he felt threatened after Halcrow threw a baseball cap at him.
As Dumont-Fontaine was taking him out of the bar, Halcrow got frustrated when the door wouldn’t open, the RCMP officer testified.
According to an agreed statement of facts in his case, Oke told various witnesses that Farrow, 63, spit at his face.
The surveillance video from outside the former Thompson homeless shelter shows the events leading up to Oke punching Farrow.
It begins with officers speaking to onlookers in what appears to be a friendly manner.
Farrow, who can be seen leaning on the railing, speaking to the officers, spits at the direction of the other officer. Oke suddenly jumps over and punches Farrow three times in the head.
Farrow, when contacted by CBC, said he didn’t remember what happened the day Oke punched him.
CBC News showed both of the videos to Kash Heed, a former chief of the West Vancouver Police Department and former solicitor general of British Columbia, and to Insp. Rob Bell, a veteran RCMP officer.
Heed called the videos troubling.
They show both officers losing control of a situation and reacting in ways that don’t align with use of force training, he said.
“I could not see any justification whatsoever to punch these people in the head,” Heed said.
Bell, who testified at Dumont-Fontaine’s trial as a use of force expert, told CBC News the videos show very different circumstances.
Dumont-Fontaine was reacting to an “act of aggression,” Bell said.
“Yes, it was a ball cap [that was thrown], but from a police use of force perspective, what really is important is that when … [Dumont-Fontaine] turns around, he senses a threat,” he told CBC News after the trial.
In the Oke video, however, Bell said there isn’t a visible threat.
“There’s distance between him and … at least in the video that I saw, you can’t visibly see the spit,” he said.
‘Soft hat … is no threat’
Heed disagrees with Bell’s assessment of the Halcrow situation.
“I’m the first one to tell you if someone raises their hands to a police officer, they need to be knocked on their back,” he said.
“Someone throwing a soft hat at you is no threat, in my humble opinion, and based on my years of experience in policing.”
In both cases, Heed said the repeated punches are a cause for concern.
“We’re not taught … [to punch] three or four times in the head,” said Heed, unless “you’re in an absolute crisis and that’s the only way you’re going to protect yourself.”
Because Oke said Farrow spit on him, Farrow was charged with assaulting a police officer. The charge was never formally laid, according to court documents
But Bell said charging the two men with assaulting an officer is about accountability.
“If people are allowed to spit or throw objects at the police and they’re not arrested and they’re not charged, then where’s the deterrent in stopping people … from trying the same thing or even escalating?” he said.
The charge wasn’t the first Dumont-Fontaine has faced.
In 2014, Alberta RCMP charged him with being in a dwelling unlawfully and obstruction of justice while on duty.
The case went to court and ended in a mistrial, after which the charges were dismissed. Dumont-Fontaine didn’t face any internal discipline in that incident.
In the Thompson case, a code of conduct proceeding in Manitoba cleared him of any wrongdoing, his lawyer said.
Court records show the RCMP docked Oke two days’ pay, and he was non-promotable for two years beginning in December 2019.
RCMP spokesperson Tara Seel said the force is focused on building a better relationship with Indigenous people, through more cultural awareness training and increased communication with Indigenous elders.
Thompson is a “very busy” detachment, she said in a statement.
“On an almost daily basis, our officers are seeing something violent or traumatic, whereas people in the general population might see a violent or traumatic incident once or twice in their whole life,” she said.
She also said Thompson, because it is a northern hub, has a larger a transient population with fewer ties to the community.
“This can also lead to an increase in violence-related calls for service,” she said.
Burned out: court documents
Dumont-Fontaine told court that on the day he punched Brian Halcrow, he had been working since 8 a.m. He started his day in Chemawawin, a First Nation about a four-hour drive from Thompson.
Dumont-Fontaine wasn’t stationed in Thompson, but was part of the district’s relief unit, which travels around the vast area, helping detachments that are short-staffed.
An RCMP spokesperson said there are currently 10 vacancies in the North District.
Back in 2018, before Const. Greg Oke assaulted Farrow, he told supervisors he was burned out, court documents say.
“Doing all the overtime and working regular shifts … not doing any recreational activities to relieve the stress … [I] felt like I was going to explode,” he told them, according to the documents.
Oke was 40 when he joined the RCMP and his first posting was in 2015 in Thompson. He had worked the job for three years and said he dealt with aggressive individuals daily.
Farrow was known to police, and Oke said he had dealt with him over 100 times before.
Officers typically only stay stationed in northern detachments like Thompson for two to four years, the RCMP’s spokesperson said.
Thompson Mayor Colleen Smook said the revolving door of officers means the city often becomes the training ground for new officers who may not form attachments to the community.
They are often younger and haven’t experienced working in the north, she said.
“There definitely has been issues in the past and [it] still happens. I won’t say that it’s perfect,” Smook said.
The mayor, now in her second term, said when she hears about incidents involving police, she tells the RCMP commander immediately.
New recruits immediately go through cultural training, which she hopes “will improve relationships.”
“That’s how we’re going to better it,” she said.
Kristi Gingrich, who works with the Canadian Mental Health Association in Thompson, which runs the local shelter, describes the relationship between those at the shelter and police as strained.
“I would say that’s probably due to some trauma in the past and also with authority figures,” she said.
“I definitely think using a lens of harm reduction and focusing on needs and concerns and sometimes just the simple act of listening goes a long way.”
Healing and respect
Jack Robinson, an elder at Ma-Mow-We-Tak Friendship Centre in Thompson and a Cross Lake First Nation member, says he sympathizes with what RCMP officers see daily in the city.
But a small number of officers can make the whole force look bad, he said.
“There has been some brutality, there’s no doubt about that,” said Robinson, who has lived in Thompson for over two decades.
But there are also “one to three officers … I know here in Thompson that people on the street speak highly of.”
The only way to better the relationship between Indigenous people and police is through healing and respect, he said.
“I don’t know what I would do if I was an RCMP officer … [and] somebody threatened me with a knife. How would I react?” he said.
“Yes, there are some officers that don’t have respect, and they need more training. Respect is a big word in my culture.”
WATCH | Longer version of assault of William Farrow:
If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:
If you’re worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. Here are some warning signs:
- Suicidal thoughts.
- Substance abuse.
- Feeling trapped.
- Hopelessness and helplessness.
- Mood changes.