Cassidy Oliver (Vancouver Province) – On April 4, 2012, the mother of a 15-year-old First Nations girl in Prince Rupert dialed 911 for assistance with her troubled daughter who, according to RCMP, was trying to harm herself. During arrest, the girl had her left arm broken.
Seventeen days later, Robert Wright, a 47-year-old First Nations man in the neighbouring town of Terrace, was taken into custody after his wife called 911 for help. Hours later, he was airlifted to Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster with a serious head injury.
And three weeks after the Wright incident, on May 15, Terrace police responded to a call for assistance from William Watts. The 36-year-old First Nations man wanted help with an intoxicated family member who was en route to his house.
Instead of helping him, however, Watts alleges the two responding police officers put him in cuffs, called him a “dirty f—ing Indian,” and delivered repeated blows to his head while his kids and neighbours watched on. He woke up in hospital, bruised and battered.
These three stories of alleged police brutality were told Tuesday at a press conference held by B.C. Civil Liberties Association to highlight what the organization is describing as a systemic problem in First Nations-RCMP relations in northwestern B.C.
David Eby, BCCLA’s executive director, said the current rate of serious police-related injuries a year for the RCMP-served communities of Terrace, Kitimat and Prince Rupert is trending towards a level that is almost five times that of B.C.’s municipal police departments.
As a direct result, he said many First Nations in that region have developed a view that they are under attack by the RCMP – an opinion expressed by Chief Bob Chamberlain, vice president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, who was at the press conference.
“We are suggesting to the RCMP that there is a crisis in terms of how they are handling calls made by families in the north for assistance,” said Eby.
“People shouldn’t be afraid that when they call the RCMP for help, that a family member will be seriously injured. And unfortunately, that is what is happening. So the RCMP needs to look very carefully at its 911 response in domestic situations and fix it immediately.”
The 15-year-old girl, a single mother of a baby girl, told reporters the experience has left her traumatized. She also spoke of the extreme difficulty she had caring for her child with the use of only one arm.
“I don’t think I will ever trust the RCMP again,” she said. “I cry to myself because of what happened.”
Denise Miller, Wright’s cousin, said her family still has more questions than answers as to what exactly happened the evening of April 21, the night Wright was arrested. According to Miller, Wright’s wife Heather called police because she was concerned for his safety.
Police say he was arrested for alleged impaired driving and taken to the cells. While in custody, he suffered a head injury and subsequent aneurism that required brain surgery. He was taken to the Terrace hospital three times before being airlifted to Royal Columbian.
He remains in hospital recovering from his coma and is still disoriented and has trouble speaking, according to his wife.
“I still have no facts on what happened,” Wright’s wife wrote in a statement read out loud Tuesday. “I would like to know what caused Robert’s head injury.”
His case is being investigated by New Westminster Police who are expected to view video evidence of his time in cells as part of the investigation.
The other two cases are also being investigated by police; the 15-year-old girl’s by Delta Police and the Watts matter by a still-unannounced police agency.
RCMP Supt. Ray Bernoties criticised the BCCLA for holding the conference, considering the organization had a meeting scheduled later in the day with RCMP staff to discuss their concerns.
“I am disappointed that the BCCLA would grandstand on these files when they know full well that there are independent external investigations going on,” he said.
“The BCCLA would be the first to criticize the police, and has in the past, for speaking publicly about a complaint while it is still under investigation. If nothing else, they should hold themselves to their own standard.”