WARNING: This story contains video which readers may find disturbing.
Manitoba’s police watchdog says it will investigate a 2019 incident in which an RCMP officer held his knee on the neck of a man being arrested, who cried out “I can’t breathe” repeatedly as he lay helpless for more than four minutes.
Jane MacLatchy, commanding officer of the Manitoba RCMP, has condemned the actions of the officer who, at one point, dismissed the pinned man’s pleas because he could still speak, according to a bystander video.
The police force only learned about the incident this week after the Winnipeg Free Press reported on the suspect’s trial, MacLatchy said.
The details of the arrest that have emerged have drawn comparisons to death of George Floyd, which came 11 months after the Manitoba incident. Floyd, who died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, gasped “I can’t breathe” as he was killed.
The Winnipeg incident, outside the James Richardson International Airport on Aug. 1, 2019, was captured on video by the father of Nathan Lasuik, the man who was pinned to the ground.
CBC News has received permission from Lasuik to publish it.
Lasuik is charged with several counts of assault. RCMP say they responded to a report of an intoxicated man who assaulted a person at the airport and then struck an officer in the face without provocation.
The video was played in court by his defence to argue the RCMP used excessive force in trying to subdue him.
The footage shows an RCMP officer kneeling on Lasuik’s neck and placing the man’s face against the ground. The officer does not appear to adjust his knee, nor the pressure, despite repeated pleas from the man.
Video of 2019 arrest (WARNING: this video may be disturbing to viewers):
“Let me breathe,” Lasuik is heard saying early in the video.
“You’re breathing. When you’re talking, you’re breathing,” a police officer shouts back. It’s not clear from the video which police officer is speaking.
“Let me breathe, guys. Please, please, let me breathe,” Lasuik continues.
“Please nothing,” Lasuik is told in response. “You opened your mouth one too many times.”
Lasuik continues to beg the police officer to relax.
“Now you’re a tough guy, aren’t you?” he is told.
“I’m not a tough guy, I never was,” Lasuik said, as he appears to start crying.
‘I was going to die’
Lasuik, whose father was already recording the arrest, calls for someone to take video of the officer’s conduct, saying he’s going to die.
It doesn’t appear the RCMP member relents until around two minutes into the video, when Lasuik starts screaming.
“Just relax,” he is told. Lasuik says “thank you, thank you,” in response.
Before long, though, he once again says he cannot breathe.
A police officer can be heard telling a bystander to step away, but she stands her ground.
“I’m just making sure that this person can breathe,” the bystander says.
Soon, another police officer arrives and asks Lasuik to put his hands behind his back, which he says he can’t do because he’s pinned to the ground.
The other officer pulls Lasuik toward him, freeing his neck. “Oh my God, thank you, thank you,” Lasuik says, as he’s put into handcuffs. “I was going to die.”
Full context missing: police union
At the end of the video, a police officer approaches Lasuik’s father to ask if he was recording.
“I have to seize the phone,” the officer says, before the video ends.
The union that represents 20,000 RCMP members cautioned against jumping to conclusions based on an “edited video clip.”
“It is not fair or accurate for the media or public to speculate on the appropriateness of a specific arrest based on brief and sensational footage. Such decisions should be left to regulators and experts,” Brian Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation, said in a written statement.
Sauvé acknowledged the video is “disturbing to watch,” but said it is a small portion of a “much longer incident in which Mr. Lasuik attacked a random stranger while intoxicated — which triggered the police response — and then repeatedly punched, kicked and attempted to headbutt RCMP members who responded to the disturbance by attempting to de-escalate the situation.”
Lasuik remains on trial for those charges. A use of force expert will testify when the court case resumes on Aug. 31, his lawyer said.
The RCMP is conducting a Code of Conduct investigation and reviewing whether the officer who placed his knee on Lasuik’s neck will remain on duty, MacLatchy said in a statement Wednesday.
She found the video to be “very disturbing.”
“Hearing a man clearly informing police officers that he cannot breathe is all too present in our collective consciousness,” she said, adding the police force does not teach or endorse kneeling on the neck to restrain someone.
“This is a difficult situation for any police officer to deal with. However, a knee to the neck is not the response for which our officers are trained, and this incident needs to be further examined.”
Meanwhile, Manitoba’s police watchdog says it was informed of the incident on Wednesday, following the initial Winnipeg Free Press report on the trial.
The Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba said in a Thursday news release it is investigating the excessive force allegation.
“While the [unit’s] civilian director has determined that public interest demands that an independent investigation be undertaken by IIU in this matter, as the trial remains before the courts, no further details of the incident or comments will be made at this time,” the release said.