BRITISH COLUMBIA

Rights advocates call for arrest footage after suspect suffers brain damage

11/06/2012 03:18 EST | Updated 01/06/2013 05:12 EST
VANCOUVER - Rights advocates say the release of a five-page report from the Crown isn't enough to explain how a First Nations man from Terrace, B.C., emerged from a confrontation with RCMP with severe brain damage.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs are questioning the credibility of the report released by the Criminal Justice Branch last week, which explains why no charges were laid against the officers involved.

Robert Wright was arrested for suspected drunk driving in April, and while in custody hit his head twice. He was taken to hospital three times and then airlifted to another hospital for emergency brain surgery.

The 47-year-old came out of the ordeal with irreparable brain damage that requires the constant care of his wife.

"The video and audio tape in this case must be released," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip in a release issued Tuesday.

In one instance, the detailed Crown report states the man was kneeling on a bench with his hands cuffed behind his back, when he abruptly tried to stand — prompting an officer to take him to the ground. He struck his head against either the floor, concrete bench or toilet.

"What possible scenario could the videotape capture that justifies this use of force against a restrained man?" Phillip asked.

A six-month investigation by another police force recommended an assault charge against an officer in early October, but only weeks later the Crown ruled out any charge.

The report states the use of force was reasonable and the brain damage was not likely the result of hitting his head, but instead may have been medical.

Both groups are now calling for the entire file to be released for their review, arguing the testimony relied on by the Crown was made by secret experts behind closed doors. The names of the experts are not included in the report.

In B.C., Crown lawyers assess charge recommendations to determine whether there is a substantial likelihood of conviction. In the case of the officer involved with Wright, the Crown felt the evidence did not meet that threshold.

The officer's name has never been released.

Criminal Justice Branch spokesman Neil MacKenzie said the Crown released its report to provide rationale for the decision.

"The intention of the branch in issuing a clear statement is to provide transparency to the process, and to provide the public with some understanding of the reasons that we have reached the decision," he said in an interview.

"We can't, obviously, guarantee that will necessarily answer all the questions that may arise."

MacKenzie said it's at the discretion of the investigating police force as to whether it will release the file or its various components.

A spokeswoman for the New Westminster Police Department has said a Freedom of Information request must be made to gain greater access to the file.

However, Wright's wife, Heather Prisk, said she tried to make that request but was told the file is catalogued by the officer's name.

The force says it won't release the officer's name because no charge was approved.

In some cases it has taken years and sustained advocacy by the rights groups to gain access to footage of RCMP interactions with people who died will in police custody.

Footage of an incident with Clayton Willey, who was hogtied while being stunned with a police Taser in Prince George, B.C., wasn't released until nine years after his 2003 death.

Footage showing the final moments of Frank Paul, who was tossed by Vancouver police into an alley drunk and soaking wet, came out five years after his death only due to an investigation by the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.