No criminal wrongdoing by RCMP in death of man in police custody, says RNC

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Mike King, director of Newfoundland and Labrador's Serious Incident Response Team, says an RNC investigation into the death of a man in RCMP custody, which found no criminal conduct on part of the officers involved, was done properly. (CBC - image credit)
Mike King, director of Newfoundland and Labrador's Serious Incident Response Team, says an RNC investigation into the death of a man in RCMP custody, which found no criminal conduct on part of the officers involved, was done properly. (CBC - image credit)

A Royal Newfoundland Constabulary investigation has concluded there was no criminal conduct on the part of RCMP officers in the death of a man in police custody in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in 2020.

And Newfoundland and Labrador's police watchdog, which oversaw the RNC investigation into the death, says it was done by the book.

In a press release Friday morning, the agency's director, Mike King, director of the provincial Serious Incident Response Team, or SIRT-N.L., said RNC investigators conducted the investigation properly and took all appropriate steps.

According to King's report, the RNC concluded there were "no reasonable grounds to believe that any officer or guard's actions constitute a marked departure from the standard of care expected of a reasonably prudent officer/jail guard in the circumstances. Therefore, there are no grounds to consider criminal charges of criminal negligence causing death."

King noted SIRT's role was to make sure the RNC's investigation "pursued all appropriate investigative avenues."

"There was no evidence of bias, tunnel vision or lack of objectivity on the part of the investigating agency," wrote King.

At the time of the death, said King, the RCMP immediately notified SIRT-N.L. but because the team was not yet operational, King asked the RNC to conduct the investigation with SIRT-N.L. oversight and review.

The RCMP said at the time that officers took the man into custody on a Thursday evening after responding to a complaint. The man was placed in a cell, police said, and was later found unresponsive.

Timeline, details released in report

King's report, with the results of the RNC investigation, added further details to the 2020 incident but doesn't identify anyone involved.

The report says RCMP officers responded to a complaint of an intoxicated male at a Happy Valley-Goose Bay service station at 6:59 p.m. on Dec. 17.

The man was found in a taxi and wouldn't get out of the vehicle. Officers said they could smell liquor and that the man slurred his speech and handed over a prescription when asked his name.

One officer ran a police record check and found the man had a warrant for his arrest from the Halifax Regional Police Service and "several other release documents associated to him that had a 'do not possess or consume clause.'"

Officers arrested the man on the warrant and for breaching court orders.

The report says an officer brought the man to the police station around 7:15 p.m. occasionally snoring during the ride. The man was placed in Cell 148 — one of two cells in the station referred to as the "drunk cells" — around 7:22 p.m.

David Bell/CBC
David Bell/CBC

A civilian guard employed by the RCMP and Commissionaires — a non-profit group that provides security services — was the only guard on duty at the time. His shift ended at 8 p.m. and he was replaced by another guard.

In a statement to the RNC, one officer said the man was wearing a hospital band on his wrist, was placed on his stomach in the cell, and had his handcuffs removed. He was still breathing and yelling when officers left the cell, with "no signs of medical distress," the officer said in the statement.

Video obtained by the RNC in its investigation shows officers and one guard placing the man in the cell around 7:26 p.m. At 8:17 p.m. there is a "large tensing" around the man's stomach "similar to the diaphragm rising in the chest."

"The tensing is very obvious and dramatic," reads the report. The tensing occurred periodically until 8:26 p.m., when the man stopped moving. He remained motionless until an RCMP officer checked on him around 9:20 p.m.

The report says the officer observed the arrested man in the cell in the same position he was observed in previously. The officer opened the cell and found the man unresponsive and called to the guard to call an ambulance. Officers performed CPR until the ambulance arrived and brought the man to the hospital in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, where he was declared dead at 9:59 p.m.

Alcohol poisoning, cause of death

On Dec. 18, the RNC sent four of its own officers to Happy Valley-Goose Bay to take over the investigation. A SIRT-N.L. member who was assigned to observe the investigation was also there.

Investigators took notes and reports from all RCMP officers involved, the RCMP policy and procedure manual, cell block surveillance videos, autopsy results and an opinion letter from the chief medical examiner, the man's medical records, RCMP dispatch recordings and prisoner logbooks.

The two officers who arrested the man and took him into custody declined to provide a statement, as is their right, the report reads.

More than 40 civilians were also interviewed, including the civilian employees of the RCMP who guarded the cells on the night of the incident, friends and family of deceased and others known to have had contact with the man earlier on the day of the incident. Forensics was also were conducted on both Cell 148 and the RCMP vehicle used to transport the man. Both were photographed.

Rebecca Martel/CBC
Rebecca Martel/CBC

The chief medical examiner's report to the RNC said the immediate cause of death was determined to be "acute alcohol poisoning." The man's blood-alcohol level was measured at 464 milligrams per decilitre — or 0.464 per cent — and the examiner said most acute alcohol poisoning deaths occur when the level is 400 or more. However, deaths have been recorded at levels between 300 and 350 milligrams.

When asked if early medical intervention would have prevented the man's death, the medical examiner said the effort would have been "fruitless" because officers didn't know the man had a lethal alcohol level.

"If his blood-alcohol was known or it was assumed that he was in a medical emergency situation, it's possible that medical intervention could have helped. This would require at minimum admitting to an intensive-care unit, being placed on a respirator and treated with appropriate fluids and necessary medications," the statement reads.

"It would however, take approximately 24 hours before his blood alcohol came down to zero. In cases of severe alcohol poisoning, the only treatment to remove alcohol is dialysis and in this case in order to have undergone dialysis, AP would have to have been transported to St. John's, following which it could take anywhere from two to six hours to set up the dialysis procedure."

SIRT-N.L. concluded the investigation was comprehensive, complete and in keeping with recognized investigative standards.

"The RNC team pursued all appropriate avenues of investigation and utilized numerous available methods to gather information.… RNC investigators were co-operative with SIRT-N.L. throughout our oversight and were open to our recommendations.The SIRT-N.L. observer was kept apprised of all investigative updates throughout."

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