The man who died during an arrest by the Winnipeg Police Services (WPS) on the evening of October 15, 2023 was Elias Whitehead. Whitehead was a member of Webequie First Nation in Northern Ontario and was visiting Winnipeg from his home in Split Lake (Tataskweyak Cree Nation). Since the man died while in police custody, an investigation by Manitoba’s Independent Investigation Unit (IIU) is underway.
WPCH extends condolences to the Whitehead family and friends, and to Webequie First Nation for its loss of a citizen. We are sensitive to the trauma associated with seeing videos of your loved one being brutalized by police in his last moments of life posted across social media platforms. From the sharing of this heinous murder, we can hope, at the very least, for a wide-scale public denunciation of the role that police play in the violence and death of Indigenous peoples in our city and across Turtle Island.
The murder of Elias Whitehead is the direct result of a culture where nearly all social, economic, and health-related issues are met with arrest, criminalization, and punishment.
Among the very few details that have been released to the public thus far, the IIU reports that Whitehead was having trouble breathing and went into “medical distress” before he was pronounced dead at the Health Sciences Centre. Meanwhile, police are trying to paint a picture of police innocence. In a WPS Substack released a few days after Whitehead’s death, Police Chief Danny Smyth relayed details of how police responded to what they say was a man acting “combative and acting erratically.”
Whitehead was in crisis.
By portraying Whitehead as a volatile and potentially dangerous threat to himself and others, police can control the narrative that their actions were reasonable and warranted: that Whitehead needed to be subdued. In their retelling of deaths in custody, police are always justified in their actions - even at the cost of others’ lives.
Police often portray people experiencing mental health crises as deserving of police violence and death. Meanwhile, police are quick to undermine public discourse and evidence that attests to police violence.
In the Substack post, Smyth airs his disappointment that witness’ testimony, and their first-hand video footage, has informed the public details of the event. While condemning CBC Manitoba for relaying witness evidence, he also condemns the social media response that has ensued.
Smyth claims that he is critical of witnesses’ videos because they do not offer the full “context” of what happened leading up to the events - as if police beating a man restrained on the ground could ever be justified.
Yet it is evident that Smyth is critical of witness testimony and the video evidence produced by witnesses because they challenge the naturalized belief that police accounts are the absolute “truth.”
While urging the public to wait for the results of the independent investigation before making conclusions, Police Chief Danny Smyth is quick to justify the officers’ actions.
Smyth writes: “I am confident that the WPS members involved in this event were well trained, and will account for the actions they took, including the level of force used to control the situation.” Smyth should call “the situation” what it is: the loss of a man’s life at the hands - literally - of Winnipeg police.
Smyth’s words also remind us of the fact that police training does not prevent police killings.
In 2020, Robyn Maynard pointed out that police training was in place when George Floyd was killed at the hands of police. Maynard explains that the decades of police reform have not improved the context in which Black, Indigenous, and people of colour are victims of police, regardless of diversity hires and anti-oppression training. Maynard reminds us that, at their core, police are an inherently violent and systemically racist institution that must be defunded in favour of expanding services that will bring health and safety to our communities.
A WPS officer beating and kneeling on a restrained Indigenous man during an arrest, knowing he could not breathe, echoes the dehumanizing anti-Black murder of George Floyd.
Independent investigations have serious limitations.
Experts, including practicing lawyers, indicate that these types of investigations are biased in favor of police. Since those conducting the investigation are former members of law enforcement, they typically favour police perspectives and police interests. It goes without saying that investigation of police actions should never be dealt with by police.
As they are currently structured, investigations serve to justify police violence.
Investigations of death in custody function to exonerate police by justifying their violent (and deadly) actions. We can never forget the tragic murder of 16-year-old Eishia Hudson who was shot dead by WPS officers - officers who did not face any charges. In addition to representing police interests (and representing white interests), there are longstanding concerns with the lack of transparency and accountability when it comes to in-custody deaths involving Indigenous peoples. Moreover, the outcome of investigations seldom result in change, but are mere “proposals” for reform that are not legally mandated, nor typically effective.
It is extremely difficult to navigate what will bring justice to family survivors and communities in the face of these injustices. It is understandable that families desire charges, prosecutions, and convictions of officers who killed their loved ones. On the other hand, it is difficult to continue buying into a system that has never aired in favor of Indigenous peoples. It is important to remember that a single conviction of an officer, while in and of itself rare, does not remedy the systemic racism of police.
A sole conviction does not disrupt the totalizing power afforded to police, which creates an environment where police violence is normalized.
The other most important action we must take right now is to mobilize for justice, for Whitehead and the several Indigenous people killed annually by the WPS (and police generally, across Canada), so that police killings are no more.
To prevent deaths in custody, we have to start by preventing interactions with police.
Whitehead should never have been met with police. Police should never be tasked with responding to “wellness checks” (also known as mental health checks) because, as we know, the vast majority of people killed by police are living with mental health and/or problematic substance use issues.
Police are not health care workers. Police must be replaced with community-based services that are trained in violence prevention and non-violent de-escalation, and which should include mental health professionals and social workers.
Whitehead deserved care, not arrest.
We currently live in a world where actions related to poverty, mental health, problematic substance use, and intergenerational violence are met with arrest. Yet we need to remember that we have control over the type of world we want to live in. We have the ability to create a better world.
Beyond detasking police from mental health checks, we need to improve the social and structural conditions so that people are not being brought into contact with the police in the first place. While the public loves to decry “violence” and “crime” in Winnipeg, they seldom want to commit to a solution based on recognizing the humanity of our neighbours. Defunding the police and refunding our community-based services is the only way to build a safer and healthier city.