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The Winnipeg Police Service failed to notify the Independent Investigation Unit after allegations surfaced that an off-duty officer with a history of misconduct complaints seriously injured an Indigenous suspect, a Free Press investigation has determined.
The IIU has been kept in the dark about the incident for five months, with civilian director Zane Tessler confirming this week the WPS made no report to his agency. In response to inquiries from the Free Press, Tessler said he had no information on the case.
Under the Police Services Act, law enforcement must notify the IIU of any incident where the actions or inactions of a police officer—whether on- or off-duty—results in death, serious injury, or where there is evidence to suggest an officer engaged in unlawful conduct.
Patrol Sgt. Jeffrey Norman, a 22-year veteran with the WPS, was not on shift and not in uniform on the evening of Feb. 23, 2020 when he followed suspected shoplifters from a Dakota Street liquor store to a residential area.
In a confrontation with the suspects, Norman was allegedly attacked with a tire iron and a bottle of liquor, which led to him being hospitalized for a concussion and a sprained wrist.
But neither the WPS news release about the incident, nor the Crown attorney’s characterization of it during a bail hearing for one of three accused, mentioned Norman was allegedly armed with a baton while off-duty and knocked a 19-year-old Indigenous man unconscious prior to his arrest.
Those allegations only emerged two days later when the man appeared on video in front of a bail-court judge with stitches across his forehead and scabs on his face and ear.
According to information on the IIU's website, a "serious injury" is defined by the Police Services Act as, among other things, "lacerations that require admission to a hospital on an in-patient basis."
"Having been struck in the face with this baton, he blacked out and the next thing he remembers is waking up in a pool of his own blood," the man’s defence lawyer, Mitchell Enright, said at the Feb. 25 bail hearing.
"There’s a lot of questions and concerns I have about this incident. What seems clear is that (Patrol Sgt.) Norman felt that (my client) participated in a liquor-store theft, decided to detain him, some sort of incident followed in which all parties, being (Patrol Sgt.) Norman and (my client) sustained injuries."
“There’s a lot of questions and concerns I have about this incident. What seems clear is that (Patrol Sgt.) Norman felt that (my client) participated in a liquor–store theft, decided to detain him, some sort of incident followed in which all parties, being (Patrol Sgt.) Norman and (my client) sustained injuries.” – Defence lawyer Mitchell Enright
Agreeing to release the man, who has no criminal record, provincial court Judge Stacy Cawley noted his "obvious injuries."
"There clearly is something more to the story that will have to be fleshed out at the trial of the matter," the judge said. "I will say, though, the obvious is that these are very serious allegations, and I noted that the injuries suffered by the complainant, (Patrol Sgt.) Norman, appear to be serious."
There was no publication ban on the bail hearing.
The Free Press submitted requests to interview Norman to both the WPS and his union, the Winnipeg Police Association. Those interview requests were denied. A request to interview WPS Chief Danny Smyth was also denied. The Free Press also submitted written questions to the WPS. In response, the WPS sent a statement from Smyth which did not address the submitted questions.
This is not the first time questions have been raised about the WPS's lack of cooperation with the IIU.
Following an eight-month investigation in 2018, the Free Press published a four-part series detailing a pattern of disappearing complaints, skirted investigations, institutional pushback, disputes over jurisdiction and interference among officers identified in criminal probes.
In April 2019, the IIU took the extraordinary step of taking the WPS to court after it repeatedly tried, and failed, to get the force to turn over internal documents it said were necessary for an investigation into the July 2018 in-custody death of 34-year-old Matthew Richards Fosseneuve.
The WPS news release issued on Feb. 24 on the incident involving Norman and the alleged liquor thieves made no mention of injuries to any of the suspects. The WPS did not respond to written questions on why no notification to the IIU was made.
"Generally speaking, the police would be the ones to notify us. They would receive the complaint," Tessler said.
"We have had occasions where counsel for an accused person or a suspect has contacted our office and we do a bit of follow up on that, but no one's contacted us either on behalf of the individual nor have the police contacted us."
“We have had occasions where counsel for an accused person or a suspect has contacted our office and we do a bit of follow up on that, but no one's contacted us either on behalf of the individual nor have the police contacted us.” – IIU civilian director Zane Tessler
A trial date for the now-20-year-old man has not yet been set. He's charged with assault against a peace officer, assaulting a peace officer with a weapon, resisting arrest and theft under $5,000. He and the two other suspects are accused of stealing $630 worth of liquor -- 20 bottles.
Since joining the WPS following a stint with the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1990s, Norman has been accused in civil lawsuits of destroying photos and videos, wrongful arrests, beating and threatening suspects, and unnecessarily discharging his Taser. In total, he’s been sued, individually and with other officers, at least eight times in Manitoba since 2005.
A request to interview Winnipeg Police Association president Maurice Sabourin was declined. Instead, he provided a written statement, which did not address any of the allegations against Norman, including the Feb. 23 incident.
"It would not be appropriate for us to speak to legal matters involving a specific individual, but I can tell you that, from a general perspective, if any of our members has been found liable in a civil or criminal court case, that information would be readily available on the public record," Sabourin wrote.
"Furthermore, if any of our members has been convicted of an offence related to LERA, that would also be on the public record. As for the existence of civil litigation claims against one of our members, context is important."
The recent allegations against Norman came to light after the May 25 slaying of George Floyd, 46, by Minneapolis police and increased scrutiny of officers and calls to defund law enforcement agencies.
Floyd’s death sparked widespread outrage and resulted in a wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations sweeping across the continent, including in Winnipeg.
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
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