N.L. Mountie's conviction for pointing gun latest sign of systemic issues: advocate

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — A director with an Indigenous-led coalition in Newfoundland and Labrador says mounting charges against RCMP officers in the province underscore systemic issues with the force and a need for change.

An off-duty Mountie was convicted this week for pointing his firearm at a woman while drinking in 2018. The conviction caps off a year in which at least four other current and retired RCMP officers were charged on separate occasions with crimes including assault, forcible confinement and sexual assault.

Justin Campbell of First Voice in St. John’s, said the slew of charges show that the entity tasked with investigating police officers — the Serious Incident Response Team or SIRT-NL — is doing its job.

“But the RCMP clearly has systemic problems and SIRT-NL, as a reactive force, is not able to address those,” Campbell said in an interview.

In a ruling released Monday from the provincial Supreme Court, RCMP Const. Michael Wheeler was found guilty of careless use of a firearm and pointing a firearm at a person. The woman said Wheeler put her in a headlock while they were drinking at her partner’s house on Bell Island, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, according to Justice Sandra Chaytor’s written decision.

When the woman freed herself from the headlock, Wheeler pulled out his gun and pressed it against her face, with the barrel pointing upward, Chaytor said. Wheeler was off-duty, but he was wearing his police uniform, her ruling said.

RCMP Cpl. Jolene Garland confirmed Wheeler is suspended from duty and awaiting a conduct hearing, which could result in his dismissal.

Last month, SIRT-NL charged RCMP Const. Jeffrey Cormier with assault after a video surfaced on social media showing an officer slamming a man’s head into a police cruiser after escorting him off an airplane at the airport in Stephenville, N.L.

In February, the agency charged RCMP Const. Michael Hann with possession of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking, unauthorized use of a computer and breach of trust.

In May, it charged retired Mountie Albert Charles Michelin with touching someone under 14 for a sexual purpose, sexual assault causing bodily harm and breach of trust. The alleged offences are said to have taken place between 1997 and 2001.

And on Dec. 13, 2022, SIRT-NL charged a retired RCMP officer with forcible confinement and assault. Cpl. Steven Blackmore is alleged to have assaulted and confined another man in June 2019 in Clarenville, N.L. Blackmore was an officer at the time but was on leave and off-duty when the alleged assault occurred, SIRT-NL said.

"The RCMP continues to show that it is incapable of changing to address the systemic problems that have been so clearly documented with the force," Campbell said.

First Voice released a sweeping report on policing in Newfoundland and Labrador in October, which included the group's long-standing call for a civilian-led police oversight board.

Unlike SIRT-NL, which has a mandate to hold individual police officers accountable, an oversight board could address systemic issues in policing by fixing problems at the policy level, Campbell said.

The group has also called for the Mounties to be replaced by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary once a civilian-led oversight board is in place. Campbell said the mounting charges against RCMP officers reinforces that call.

Though the Constabulary has its own issues — one of its officers, Carl Douglas Snelgrove, is seeking leave to appeal his 2021 sexual assault conviction at the Supreme Court of Canada — Campbell said a civilian-led oversight board could help address them.

Last month, the province said it had formed a team to examine its police services, but the group has been criticized because its members have only law enforcement and government backgrounds.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2023.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press