A former Yellowknife man is speaking out about an alleged years-old assault at the hands of Mounties while in custody.
Travis Thomas was arrested and brought to Yellowknife RCMP cells on Sept. 30, 2013. Prior to his arrest, Thomas — almost a year sober — had an argument with his partner. Wrestling with emotions, he left home and drank “a lot” at a downtown bar, he admitted. Intoxicated, Thomas later ran into a woman he knew at a downtown apartment building. A verbal altercation between the two ensued before Thomas left the area. Not long after, Thomas said he was stopped by Mounties who accused him of assaulting the woman.
Taken to jail, Thomas said he was pinned down in a cell by four RCMP officers — one was kneeling on his back; another was kneeling on his knees. During the incident, Thomas said his head was “smashed” against the cells’ concrete floor repeatedly.
“(An officer) did it 20 times. They were telling me to stop resisting, and I was telling them I wasn’t,” recalled Thomas, who now lives in Edmonton. He recalled telling the officers he was going to sue them during the incident.
He was later released and charged with assault and assaulting a peace officer.
But when he received information and evidence from prosecutors more than a month later, he wasn’t notified of any video evidence of the incident recorded in RCMP cells, nor was he given any notice of a deadline to request footage.
Peter Harte, Thomas’s lawyer at the time, asked for recordings from the Crown. If the allegation against his client was true — if he assaulted a police officer — it should be captured on RCMP cameras, he reasoned.
In a subsequent Charter of Rights and Freedoms application from Harte, he stated that the Crown informed him in January 2014 that there was no footage.
“Crown counsel advised that the cell video was not available as video is ‘purged’ every 60 days,” wrote Harte. In the Charter application that followed, citing an accused’s right to be made aware of any relevant evidence possessed by the Crown or the police, Harte called for Thomas’ charges to be stayed.
Prosecutors eventually dropped both charges.
In a recent interview, Harte said he believes the second charge was stayed because the footage had been erased, as per RCMP protocol.
Harte isn’t suggesting wrongdoing by the RCMP, but rather pointing out that the detachment’s system — which apparently saw footage being deleted on a set schedule — had evidently left his client, and the case as a whole, bereft of a key piece of evidence.
‘RCMP processes evolve with technology’
Video footage within the detachment is still deleted routinely, unless it’s tied to an ongoing criminal case, according to Yellowknife RCMP.
“Our retention policy is 30 days, unless it is requested for court. If it’s the case, they are kept for the duration of the retention linked to the operational file,” stated RCMP spokesperson Julie Plourde in an email, adding there are “varying retention periods depending on the subject of the file.”
According to Harte, that would mean the police are holding onto footage, captured in every cell at the Yellowknife detachment for 30 days less than when Thomas was allegedly assaulted while in custody.
Asked to confirm whether the retention period has in fact been cut in half since Thomas’ arrest, Plourde said police “cannot speak to what technology or processes may have been guided by the available technology at the time” because “RCMP processes evolve with technology.”
Addressing Thomas’s allegations that he was beaten while in cells, Plourde said all claims of undue force are taken seriously by RCMP.
“According to your information, the charges were dropped, so they have already been dealt with by the justice system and the RCMP respects these processes,” stated Plourde.
Asked why and under what circumstances video footage was deleted in Thomas’s case, NNSL Media was directed to an access to information and privacy procedure.
“We do not have the authority to disclose this information…,” said Plourde.
Thomas said he waited years to speak out about the alleged assault because he was intimidated. Since his early 20s, he said he was often unfairly targeted by Mounties; later “harassed” by officers following convictions for cannabis related offences when he was younger.
Thomas said he never filed a formal complaint against the RCMP as a result of those fears.
It wasn’t until Thomas witnessed recent Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S, which spurred demonstrations against police brutality in the North and across the globe, that he decided to speak out.
“I saw what’s been happening. I just knew it was the right time to expose what happened to me,” said Thomas.
Surveillance practices scrutinized in the past
In 2010, a Yellowknife RCMP constable was acquitted of assaulting an intoxicated man — left with a cut on his head — while the man was in custody at the detachment.
A territorial court judge ruled video evidence presented at trial appeared to show the complainant trip over himself and fall. The video shown, however, wasn’t from cells where the man maintained the assault took place.
Court heard the Mountie who reviewed video footage of the incident only selected what he thought was relevant — footage of the cell block where the man appeared to trip.
NNSL Media reported that cell footage was deleted six months after the incident.
At the time of the Mountie’s acquittal, Sgt. Brad Kaeding said policies had changed.
In the event of a complaint, “all camera angles will be preserved,” he told NNSL Media in November 2010.
‘I want justice’
While Thomas has no plans of filing a complaint against the RCMP, he hopes that by speaking out, the police will be held to a higher level of accountability and transparency.
“I want justice,” he said. “I’m not a savage, I’m a human being. Just because I am a Native being, I’m still a being. I have a heart.”