Pepper-sprayed and kneed: B.C. senior claims use of force unjustified in arrest

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Pepper-sprayed and kneed: B.C. senior claims use of force unjustified in arrest

An 81-year-old man is speaking out about a violent arrest by an RCMP officer in Rock Creek, B.C. who responded to a debris fire on the senior's property in September 2015.

According to Vern Rexin, he wanted to burn some pine needles and sheep fleece in order clean up his property before turning it over to a new owner.

Rexin, a retired forestry worker and former volunteer fire fighter, said he believed campfires were allowed at the time.

Forestry officers asked Rexin to put out the fire, but he told them the fire was under control, Rexin said. 

Soon afterwards, a forestry enforcement officer came to his yard with a police officer — identified in an RCMP report as Const. Kevin Pierotti.

Refused to show identification

According to Rexin, he agreed to get buckets of water to put the fire out, but refused to provide identification.

Rexin claims he eventually agreed to show Const. Pierotti his I.D. and was heading towards his house to get it when the officer took him to the ground. 

"The next thing I know I'm face down on the ground and he's on top of me beating the hell out of me. His knees are banging me in the back and he's pounding my face into the dirt just so hard as he can," Rexin said.

Rexin said Const. Pierotti pepper sprayed him in his face during the arrest, and claims he then lost consciousness.

"When it hit my face it was just like my face was on fire and I took a breath I could feel my lungs just burning," he said.

Jim Fletcher, who rents a house on the property, had a similar account.

Fletcher claims Const. Pierotti was trying to get handcuffs on Rexin when the senior knocked the officer's glasses off with his arm.

"After that the cop just went nuts and punched [Rexin] in the ear and emptied a can of pepper spray on him," Fletcher said.

Rexin was arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest and uttering threats, but he was never criminally charged.

A letter to Rexin from Crown counsel states the fire was in violation of the Wildfire Act, but Rexin was never issued a ticket.

Rexin suffered bruises and cuts to his face and was taken to the hospital.

Rexin's family filed a complaint with the RCMP.

The RCMP investigated the incident and Insp. Tom Roy of the Midway detachment issued a report in April 2016.

RCMP investigation finds no wrongdoing

Roy's report paints a very different version of events.

From the report it appears Const. Pierotti thought he might be dealing with a 60-year-old man. 

Rexin was allegedly yelling and swearing at the forestry officer and Cst. Pierotti tried to defuse the situation by asking him not to get upset.

After Rexin refused to show his identification Const. Pierotti told him he was going to arrest him for obstruction, the report states.

Const. Pierotti felt threatened by Rexin when — according to the report — the senior allegedly took up a boxer stance and barked threats at him.

"Constable Pierotti was concerned, given your anger, you may enter the residence and obtain a weapon," Roy wrote.

Rexin allegedly took a swing at Const. Pierotti, knocking his glasses off, according to the report.

The officer then took Rexin to the ground with a leg sweep, and struggled to get hand cuffs on the resisting senior, says the report.

Const. Pierotti pepper-sprayed Rexin in the face twice and kneed him in the head after warning him to stop resisting, according to the report.

Insp. Roy concluded  "I'm satisfied that Constable Pierotti used no more force than was necessary to arrest you."

"I do not support the allegation of improper use of physical force by Constable Pierotti."

CBC News requested an interview with Insp. Roy and Const. Pierotti but the RCMP said it would not respond because the matter is being reviewed by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission of the RCMP.

In an email to CBC News Const. Pierotti wrote, "I suspect you will not have the full story."

CBC News again requested an interview with Const. Pierotti but he did not respond.

Officers trained to deescalate situations

Public safety consultant Terry Coleman, the former Chief of Police in Moose Jaw, Sask, told CBC News all police officers in B.C. are trained to defuse situations to avoid violent arrests.

Coleman wouldn't comment on the encounter between Rexin and Const. Pierotti, but said RCMP officers in B.C. should follow up with training on de-escalation techniques every three years.

"If you can successfully de-escalate a situation or avoid escalating a situation, there is no need to resort to a use of force," he said.

"Police officers are amiss if they don't at least try to do that."

Rexin told CBC News he is still haunted by the arrest and he is frustrated with the findings of the RCMP's investigation.

"It's been on my mind 24 hours a day ever since," he said.