Assault trial for 3 Vancouver police officers shown video of arrest that broke suspect's ribs

Three Vancouver police constables are on trial for assault related to a 2017 arrest at a SkyTrain station. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Three Vancouver police constables are on trial for assault related to a 2017 arrest at a SkyTrain station. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

The trial of three Vancouver police officers charged with assaulting a "motionless" suspect, breaking his ribs and collapsing his lung, opened Monday in provincial court.

VPD constables Brandon Blue and Beau Spencer and now-retired constable Gregory Jackson have all been charged in connection with the May 24, 2017 arrest of a theft and obstruction suspect at Commercial-Broadway SkyTrain station.

Crown prosecutor Peter Campbell played surveillance video of the arrest for the court, which shows a man being tackled to the ground by an officer, and then apparently lying still as he is handcuffed. After a few moments, three other officers can be seen running to the scene one by one, repeatedly kneeing and punching the suspect.

Campbell told the court that after the original takedown, "None of the force that followed was necessary, reasonable or proportionate."

The suspect, David Cowie, was left with four broken ribs — including two that were each fractured in two places — as well as a collapsed lung.

Campbell said the Crown has not been able to determine which of the officers was responsible for each injury, but detailed numerous knee strikes by both Spencer and Blue, as well as several punches from Spencer and Jackson.

The trial will hear evidence from an emergency physician who treated Cowie and determined that his injuries could not have been caused by the initial takedown, but were most likely caused by the officers' knees, Campbell said.

Defence lawyers for the three officers signalled that a key issue in the trial will be confirming the identities of the police officers who took part in the arrest. Their faces were not clearly visible in the video played for the court.

Suspect was not struggling, Crown says

The first day of the trial heard that Cowie was fleeing police on a bike at the time of the arrest.

The original arresting officer, identified as Const. Josh Wong, was on foot as he chased Cowie into the SkyTrain station entrance on East 10th Avenue, Campbell told the court. Cowie carried his bike past the fare gates and then tossed it in Wong's path, the trial heard.

Wong managed to jump over the bike and bring Cowie to the ground.

In audio from police radio calls played for the court, Wong can be heard calling for backup, telling the dispatcher, "he's fighting me."

But as Campbell pointed out, "The video … plainly shows that Cowie is not fighting." The prosecutor later described Cowie as "motionless" after the takedown.

People ride the SkyTrain in Vancouver, British Columbia on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.
People ride the SkyTrain in Vancouver, British Columbia on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.

The arrest that left David Cowie with multiple broken ribs happened at an East Vancouver SkyTrain station. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

According to the Crown, Blue was first on the scene, striking the suspect with his right knee, and then holding him down. His partner Spencer arrived next, delivering several strikes with his right hand and knee, followed by Jackson, who punched Cowie at least twice, the court heard.

Monday's proceedings made it obvious that the length of time since the arrest could make it difficult to get a complete picture of what happened. A 911 operator and a paramedic both took the stand, but had difficulty recalling six-year-old details.

Two investigators with the Independent Investigations Office (IIO), which handled the file, also testified Monday. One of them, Simon Bradshaw, reviewed entries from the PRIME police database that he said confirmed Blue, Spencer and Jackson were all on scene during the arrest.

Blue was originally charged with assault causing bodily harm, but Campbell told the court Monday that the Crown will be proceeding on the lesser included charge of assault.

Spencer was previously investigated by the IIO for his role in the 2015 death of Myles Gray, an unarmed man who was handcuffed, hobbled, punched, kneed, kicked, pepper-sprayed and struck with batons by several Vancouver officers.

Although the IIO forwarded a report to Crown in the belief that some of the officers may have committed crimes, no charges were approved.

Spencer testified earlier this year during a coroner's inquest into Gray's death, which led to a jury classifying the incident as a homicide.

The trial of Blue, Spencer and Jackson is scheduled to continue on Tuesday. Cowie is not expected to testify against the charged officers.