Robert Wright RCMP In-Custody Brain Injury, Disabled BC Man's Wife Wants Answers

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ROBERT WRIGHT
Robert Wright lays in a hospital in New Westminster, B.C., in this April, 2012, handout photo. The wife of an aboriginal man who suffered a permanent brain injury while in RCMP custody in northern B.C. is pleading for answers about why charges recommended against a police officer were not approved. THE CANADIAN PRESS/B.C. Civil Liberties Association | CP

VANCOUVER - On the night Robert Wright was arrested for suspected drunk driving, police at a northern British Columbia jail assured his wife the man was sleeping and not to come by until morning.

When Heather Prisk showed up, she was informed her husband was in the intensive care unit of a Terrace hospital and about to be airlifted to the Vancouver area for emergency brain surgery.

The 47-year-old First Nations man had suffered an aneurysm, leaving him with an irreparable condition that will require care for the remainder of his life.

Prisk was never told what went on in the cell overnight, and on Friday she again pleaded for answers.

A six-month police investigation into the incident that left Wright with permanent brain damage recommended a charge of assault against a Mountie, she said. But just under two weeks after the report was submitted, Crown lawyers decided against approving the charge.

"As far as I understand the officer is still on active duty," Prisk said from Terrace.

"The public has a right to know the details of this case. I still have no answers about how my husband was injured and who was responsible for his injury."

Hours after Prisk called on the Crown to explain its rationale for the decision — which eliminates any possibility the case will go to trial — the media received a detailed statement from the Criminal Justice Branch. Prisk still hadn't received an explanation.

The woman, who was also urging various police departments to make surveillance footage from the incident available, had pushed for the information since Oct. 23.

The Criminal Justice Branch laid out the reasons the Crown concluded there was not a substantial likelihood of any conviction in a five-page statement, and said there was video and audio recordings to corroborate.

Police used force on several occasions during the arrest, but the available evidence did not establish it was unlawful, the Crown said. Further, a neurosurgeon could not conclude trauma the man suffered during the incident caused the bleeding in his brain — suggesting instead it was caused by a medical condition.

"Even if it had been the result of police action, it would not render those actions unlawful in the circumstances of this case," the statement said.

Prisk has the support of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, who earlier in the day were demanding a special prosecutor be appointed to review the charge decision.

"I think this is everything that's wrong with police accountability in B.C. and why the Independent Investigation Office was established," David Eby, executive director of the civil liberties association, said later in the day referring to a new watchdog that has begun operating since the incident.

"I really do have a sense that the office is dealing with families differently. ... The fact that we had to call a press conference to get this document is inexcusable."

He said the association will review the statement thoroughly, and focus further efforts on getting the recordings released to the family.

The incident occurred on April 21, 2012, before the opening of B.C.'s new police watchdog, the Independent Investigations Office.

At the time, four members of the New Westminster Police Department were tasked with investigating the case. The force said in a news release two days after the incident that Terrace RCMP responded to a complaint of a possible impaired driver at 6 p.m. that night.

"While in police custody, the male was non-compliant in cells and had to be physically restrained by the police," the release said. "The male subsequently suffered a head injury."

Wright was taken to the local hospital three times before being transported to Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster.

The Crown's statement laid out a broader picture of what happened, describing a scenario in which police were led to believe Wright intended to harm himself or police by driving his car into a pole or police car when they pulled him over that night.

It says there were several struggles during which he was taken to the ground. On one occasion he struck the back of his head against the rear of a vehicle, and later inside the jail cell he hit the right side of his head on either the floor, a concrete bench or the toilet.

"The bleeding cannot be medically shown to be due to the physical altercations between Mr. Wright and police," the statement said.

Further, the prosecution must demonstrate there were no grounds to apply force or that it was excessive, it said. That was not the case because his behaviour was "resistant, belligerent and unco-operative."

"All three officers in his immediate vicinity at the time believed his action was intended in some way to engage in a physical confrontation or instigate something," it said.

Diana McDaniel, public information officer with the New Westminster police, said both Prisk and the media would have to make a request through Freedom of Information protocol to get that force's files into the incident.

Prisk told reporters she has been unable to do so because the force won't release the officer's name, and was told that's how the case is catalogued.

The report to the Crown recommending the charge was submitted on Oct. 10, McDaniel said. She said the force would not release further details — including stating the charge itself — because it did not go forward.

The RCMP did not respond to a call for comment.

Prisk told reporters than on the night of the incident, she eventually learned her husband had a brain hemorrhage, but never received an explanation about what happened.

"I discovered this on my own when I saw the staples on his scalp. I also noticed that both legs had bandages on them," she said.

Doctors have told the couple that Wright's injury is permanent, and she has become his full-time caregiver.

"This injury has forever changed Robert's and my life," she said. "Rob needs 24-hour care and supervision. I was told by doctors that he may never regain the ability to care for himself and that most people in his condition end up in a nursing home."

Chief Bob Chamberlain, UBCIC vice-president, called it "beyond belief" the Crown did not provide information to Prisk.

"At a time when the general public need to have confidence and security with the people that are deemed to look after our society, the RCMP, they cannot operate beyond reproach," he said.

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