Charges stayed against Toronto man after ‘cruel and unusual’ treatment by officer

Charges stayed against Toronto man after ‘cruel and unusual’ treatment by officer
Charges stayed against Toronto man after ‘cruel and unusual’ treatment by officer, When Philip Alafe entered the Brantford police station at 6:50 p.m. on July 3, 2015, after being arrested, he told the booking officer he had mental health issues — depression and anxiety — as well as sickle cell anemia, a disease that leaves him in excruciating pain without his medications.
He said he was not suicidal; the booking officer described him to the court as sober and passive.
But after Staff Sgt. Cheney Venn took away Alafe’s blanket, mattress and, following a violent struggle, his thin, police-issued white jumpsuit, leaving him cold, naked and in pain for three hours, he tied his socks together in an attempt to fashion a noose.
Charges stayed against Toronto man after ‘cruel and unusual’ treatment by officer
Charges stayed against Toronto man after ‘cruel and unusual’ treatment by officer
“They were just treating me worse than an animal,” said Alafe, 27, in a recent interview. “I got stripped of everything . . . I just didn’t want to live anymore . . . I thought I was going to be in that situation forever.”
He finally got his jumpsuit back, four and a half hours after it was taken away.
After seeing the surveillance videos of Alafe’s holding cell, which were made court exhibits and documented the “cruel and unusual treatment,” Ontario Court Justice Ken Lenz found Alafe’s rights under sections 7 and 12 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms had been violated. The judge stayed the charges Alafe faced: dangerous driving and assault with a weapon for allegedly driving his vehicle at others.
Lenz’s scathing ruling issued in April condemned the behaviour of Venn, whom the judge found repeatedly violated police policies on the treatment of people in custody and people with mental health concerns.
Lenz described Alafe’s treatment as “egregious” and “clearly degrading to human dignity.”
“There was in this case nothing the defendant could do to stop his mistreatment even when he did behave as requested for extensive periods of time,” the judge said.
Venn, a police officer for 23 years, testified that removing blankets, mattresses and clothing was considered common practice in similar situations.
But, Lenz noted, Brantford police policy states that a blanket should not be provided only if there is a history of suicidal tendencies, the prisoner is exhibiting destructive behaviour and, in the opinion of the officer in charge, to provide a blanket may be harmful to the prisoner, any person, or the facility.
The policy says nothing about removing mattresses, and states that clothing may only be removed if the prisoner is suicidal, Lenz said in his ruling.
Venn admitted during cross-examination by Alafe’s lawyer Josh Tuttle that he was not concerned Alafe would self-harm until the sock incident, which came three hours after Alafe had been left naked in the cell, Lenz said.
“Frankly, looking at it on an overall basis, Officer Venn was bullying someone in his control because he could,” Lenz said. “This looks more like punishment than an attempt to elicit good behaviour.”
Without the cell videos, Lenz said, he would likely have simply believed the officer’s testimony.
“That it’s a difficult job is no excuse for the type of behaviour that took place that night,” Lenz said. “The defendant said he felt he was treated like an animal, and he was, and that he no longer trusts the police, a perception I’m beginning to share.”
Brantford chief of police Geoffrey Nelson has ordered an investigation into potential professional misconduct. That investigation remains ongoing, according to a media release sent in response to questions from the Star.
“Accordingly, no further comment will be made at this time,” the release said. Venn did not respond to direct requests for comment. He remains on regular duties.
A review of Brantford Police Service policy and training practices related to prisoner care and handling is also being undertaken, according to the release, with the findings to be presented to the Police Services Board.
When the Star sought access to the video exhibits at the heart of the court ruling, a lawyer for the Brantford Police Service argued that the faces of all police officers in the booking and cell videos should be obscured, citing concerns about the reputation of the officers and the ongoing internal investigation.
Lenz ordered the Star to obscure the faces of only the officers in the booking video since their conduct was not at issue in the case. However, the public is entitled to see for themselves the behaviour of the officers in the cell videos, he said.
Alafe was arrested in Mississauga on the afternoon of July 3, 2015, on an outstanding warrant, and transported by OPP officers to the Brantford police station. He arrived at 6:50 p.m. His urine-soaked pants and underwear had been removed.
Alafe was given medication for his sickle cell anemia and put in a holding cell at 7:23 p.m., the videos show. He remained well-behaved until about 11 p.m., when he started trying to attract the attention of an officer to get more medication or medical attention. Venn testified officers cannot hear any audio from the room where the cell surveillance videos are monitored.
Venn’s shift started at 10:30 p.m., and his first interaction with Alafe was at 11:21 p.m., when Venn aggressively yelled at Alafe and told him to stop throwing wet toilet paper at the camera.
“Your toilet paper will go, your mattress will go and so will your blanket. It’ll be a very frigging cold night,” he said.
Alafe continued being what the judge said was “a pain in the neck” by throwing wet toilet paper in his cell, but was not harming anyone. Venn returned to the cell and took away Alafe’s mattress and blanket. He gave Alafe one of his pills (Alafe had asked for more, as his prescription allows for two or three as needed) and told him he’d get his things back if he behaved.
Venn came back to the cell twice more in the next three hours, warning Alafe not to tie his jumpsuit to the bars of the cell and taking his T-shirt away when he tied it to the bars.
Venn testified he was concerned about clothing being on the bars concealing Alafe in case he wanted to self-harm and said Alafe was warned several times not to put anything on the bars.
At 3:01 a.m., there was a struggle that was “terrible to watch,” Lenz said in his ruling, as Venn forcefully took the jumpsuit away from Alafe using three punches. Alafe was left naked in the cell apart from his socks.
“I just didn’t feel that he was going to be compliant with my requests,” Venn testified in response to a question about why he did not return the blanket, mattress or jumpsuit when Alafe was behaving. “He hadn’t been all night and I didn’t see at that time where anything was going to change.”
Lenz found there were several times when Alafe was behaving and Venn could have returned the items, but he chose not to.
He also criticized Venn for deciding Alafe did not need medical attention without making any inquiries, or even Googling “sickle cell anemia.”
Venn told the court he thought “Mr. Alafe was attempting to get out of the cells in order to go to a more comfortable setting, that being a hospital or mental health (ward).”
In response to questions from Lenz, Venn testified that he knew Alafe had mental health issues as noted on the booking form, but never tried to find out what exactly that meant.
He also told the court that he never found out anything about sickle cell anemia, its symptoms and what could happen if medication was not taken.
A letter filed with the court by Alafe’s doctor said the disease causes abnormal red blood cells, which frequently block circulation to bones and joints, leading to tissue death, significant inflammation, severe pain and possibly permanent organ damage. These episodes are made worse by cold, dehydration and stress.
Alafe’s condition affects his hip joint in particular, his doctor wrote. He is on a regimen of strong painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs and muscle relaxants.
“Without these medications, even for a short period of time, his pain becomes unbearable,” the doctor wrote.
Lenz found it bizarre that Venn chose not to use his crisis intervention, which emphasizes dialogue and de-escalation. “If anything there was escalation and there was little or no type of reasonable dialogue as between the defendant and the officer,” Lenz said.
Venn’s interactions with Alafe were in stark contrast to the officers on the next shift, who came to take Alafe for fingerprinting at 7:30 a.m.
“It’s mutual respect,” one officer said in a calm voice, giving Alafe a jumpsuit and promising he would get his mattress back. “I’m not going to disrespect you and I don’t want you to disrespect me either.”
Once Alafe’s mattress and blanket were returned, he went to sleep.
Lenz noted in his ruling that Alafe has no criminal record and no history of anti-social behaviour.
In an interview, Alafe said he continues to deal with issues stemming from that night, which he calls the worst of his life.
He admits his misbehaving and attempts to provoke the officers into coming to his cell were “not the most mature,” but says he was tired, cold, hungry and just trying to get their attention so he could ask for his medication and blanket.
“They say you are innocent until proven guilty, but they had already convicted me and sentenced me for the rest of my life,” he said.
Alafe is from Nigeria and arrived in Canada in 2010 after his father died. He is currently applying for refugee status.
“I believe if I didn’t have the videos, no one would have believed me,” he said.
“People don’t believe it happens . . . especially in Canada.”
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