Manitoba

Assault charge stayed against Mountie who kneeled on man's neck as he cried for help during arrest

A Manitoba RCMP officer who put his knee on a man’s neck for more than three minutes as the man cried "I can’t breathe" during a 2019 arrest at Winnipeg’s airport is no longer facing criminal prosecution.

Stayed charge sends ‘very troubling message’ about double standards for officers, says former Ontario watchdog

Two uniformed RCMP officers kneel on a man lying on a sidewalk, with one of the officers' knees on the man's neck.
This still from a video taken by Nathan Lasuik's father shows an RCMP officer placing his knee on Lasuik's neck during his arrest outside Winnipeg's international airport on Aug. 1, 2019. (Submitted by Nathan Lasuik)

A Manitoba RCMP officer who put his knee on a man's neck for more than three minutes as the man cried "I can't breathe" during a 2019 arrest at Winnipeg's airport is no longer facing criminal prosecution.

The assault charge laid against Const. Eric Gerein following the airport incident was stayed in a Winnipeg courtroom on Nov. 3. Crown attorney Rustyn Ullrich told provincial court Judge Brent Stewart prosecutors made the decision "after an extensive review" of the case.

The charge stemmed from an incident caught on cellphone video on Aug. 1, 2019, outside the Winnipeg Richardson International Airport, where Gerein was seen kneeling on Nathan Lasuik's neck and placing the man's face against the ground during an arrest, as Lasuik pleaded with the officer to let him breathe.

Gerein was charged with assault in 2022, after the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba found there were reasonable grounds to believe a criminal offence had happened.

While the arrest was in August 2019, Mounties didn't notify the police watchdog about it until more than two years later — after the video was entered as evidence during Lasuik's trial.

WATCH | Video of 2019 arrest (WARNING — this video may be disturbing to viewers):

RCMP detain man at Winnipeg airport (WARNING: video may be disturbing to viewers)

3 years ago
Duration 4:44
Manitoba RCMP detain a man who they say was intoxicated and combative outside the Winnipeg airport in 2019. Video of the arrest was played in court to argue that excessive force was used by RCMP against the man, who was detained and charged with several counts of assault.

The fact Gerein's assault charge won't go to trial despite clear video evidence of what happened sends "a very troubling message," said the former director of Ontario's police watchdog.

"If I were a member of the public in Manitoba, I would be concerned about whether or not there's a double standard with respect to police prosecutions," said Ian Scott, a prosecutor who served as director of the Special Investigations Unit from 2008 to 2013 and now largely works on investigations for the Ontario Civilian Police Commission.

He reviewed details and videos from the case before speaking with CBC News.

When a charge is stayed, the Crown has a year to reinstate it — which Scott thinks should happen in Gerein's case.

"I'm of the view that someone high up in the prosecution service or the attorney general's office ought to review this case to determine whether or not to go to trial," he said from Toronto.

Lasuik is "lucky," he said. 

"This could have been much, much more serious than it turned out to be."

Credibility issues vs. 'incontrovertible' video

Prosecutor Ullrich told court earlier this month that while it's in the public interest to hold police accountable for criminal misconduct, there are also certain expectations placed on the Crown — including meeting its own prosecutorial standards.

"In the present case, the Crown is no longer satisfied that there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction — and as such, we're going to enter a stay of proceedings," he said.

Two uniformed RCMP officers hold down a man lying on a sidewalk, with one of the officers' knees on the man's neck.
Another still from the video taken by Lasuik's father on Aug. 1, 2019. (Submitted by Nathan Lasuik)

When asked later why the charge was stayed, a provincial spokesperson said via email the Crown's prosecution was compromised by two things: the fact that the judge in Lasuik's trial had issues with his credibility, and the fact that surveillance footage submitted as evidence showed Lasuik was being aggressive before police took him to the ground.

"As noted by the judge in their finding, Nathan Lasuik's version of events lacked credibility," the provincial spokesperson said. 

"The Crown's review of the video and the fact that Lasuik was not found believable in testifying but was found to be the aggressor all underpin the Crown's conclusion that there was no reasonable likelihood of conviction against Eric Gerein."

But the former Ontario police watchdog head doesn't buy that.

A man with glasses listens to someone speak in an office.
Ian Scott, former director of Ontario's Special Investigations Unit, says Gerein's assault charge being stayed sends 'a very troubling message.' (CBC)

"This is a case that could be decided almost exclusively on the video, which is fairly incontrovertible evidence. I mean, there's many cases [that] go to trial where there are problems with victims, complainants — and of course, every homicide case," Scott said.

"Just because someone's aggressive at the beginning … it doesn't give the police licence to mete out a disproportionate force in response."

In 2021, Lasuik was given a conditional discharge and a year of supervised probation after he pleaded guilty to two assault charges and was found guilty of a third. The charges involved assaults against a man at the airport and both officers who responded to the incident.

But provincial court Judge Dave Mann also found Lasuik's Charter right to personal security was violated during his arrest because of how long Gerein's knee stayed on his neck — which a use-of-force expert at trial testified was an unnecessary and unjustified use of force.

The judge also noted credibility issues with both Gerein — who court heard said he didn't remember being recorded on cellphone video by Lasuik's father, despite looking at the camera during the video — and with the other RCMP officer involved in the arrest, who said he didn't hear Lasuik yelling he couldn't breathe, despite the man's repeated pleas for help.

What happened before arrest

Court heard that in the hours before the incident, Lasuik — who has post-traumatic stress disorder and would self-medicate with alcohol to make flying easier — had the equivalent of four vodka shots and two tequila shots.

When he and his family walked out of the airport to get into his father's vehicle in the arrivals area, Lasuik got into an altercation with another man who was parked behind their vehicle, and the situation escalated.

WATCH | Surveillance footage shows what led up to 2019 Winnipeg airport arrest:

Surveillance footage shows what led up to 2019 Winnipeg airport arrest

6 months ago
Duration 3:20
These two moments cut from more than 40 minutes of airport surveillance footage submitted as evidence at Nathan Lasuik’s trial show what happened before Const. Eric Gerein and another RCMP officer took Lasuik to the ground. During the arrest, Gerein put his knee on Lasuik’s neck for more than three minutes.

In airport surveillance footage submitted as evidence at his trial, Lasuik was seen reaching out to shake the other man's hand and then kicking him in the groin, before coming up behind him and punching him in the head.

Lasuik testified the other man was threatening him and his children.

After RCMP arrived at the scene, Lasuik was seen at times to be acting combatively toward them in the more than 40 minutes of footage submitted as evidence — including when he suddenly hit Gerein in the face.

Charged officer back on duty

Gerein's lawyer, Josh Weinstein, said in an email his client "is very pleased" with the decision to stay proceedings.

"My client has always maintained that his actions do not constitute a crime," Weinstein said.

RCMP spokesperson Tara Seel said while Gerein was placed on administrative duties following Lasuik's arrest, the officer has since returned to service. 

When reached by phone, Lasuik said he was "terribly disappointed" to learn from a reporter that the charges against Gerein had been stayed.

"This, again, is a part of their master plan to cover up and bury unprofessional policing so that society feels they are correcting problems, when in fact they are hiding problems," said Lasuik, who lives in Fort McMurray, Alta.

A provincial spokesperson said the Independent Investigation Unit will issue its final report on the incident when it's complete, and that the watchdog had no further comment.

For the former head of Ontario's Special Investigations Unit, the video of the arrest "cries out for an explanation" — one the public now won't get in a courtroom.

"There's no substance in the reason why this charge is withdrawn, and juxtaposed to that video — in my view — it would be very, very hard for a member of the public to understand why this matter did not go to trial," Scott said.

"I would think that this would erode public confidence in the province."

Charges stayed against RCMP officer who kneeled on a man's neck during an arrest

6 months ago
Duration 2:47
An assault charge has been stayed against an RCMP officer who kneeled on a man's neck during an arrest. Constable Eric Gerein was charged in 2022 after video of the 2019 arrest at the Winnipeg airport came to light. That charge was stayed earlier this month after the Crown said there was no longer a reasonable likelihood of conviction.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Caitlyn Gowriluk has been writing for CBC Manitoba since 2019. Her work has also appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, and in 2021 she was part of an award-winning team recognized by the Radio Television Digital News Association for its breaking news coverage of COVID-19 vaccines. Get in touch with her at caitlyn.gowriluk@cbc.ca.