Photo: Tyler Russell
Tyler Russell shortly after he was discharged from KGH following his arrest in May 2020.
A Kelowna RCMP officer who’s facing trial for an assault charge was not aware officers are trained to only use force against a suspect “as a last resort.”
Const. Siggy Pietrzak’s assault trial began last May, and it’s dragged on far longer than it was initially scheduled for. The charge stems from an on-duty incident on May 30, 2020 in which Pietrzak responded to a back-up request from Const. Regan Donahue during a call for a suspected intoxicated man in downtown Kelowna.
Pietrzak arrived on scene, as Const. Donahue and Const. David Carter struggled to arrest Tyler Russell. Pietrzak ran to the three men and delivered about eight punches to Russell’s head, with several landing flushes. Two bystanders caught video of the incident.
Russell was never charged in the incident.
Pietrzak took the stand in his own defense beginning Tuesday, and Crown prosecutor David Hainey’s cross examination of Pietrzak began Wednesday. Hainey asked several questions about Pietrzak’s RCMP training, which he first went through in 2016 at the age of 42. Officers also receive annual retraining.
“You’re also trained that force is only to be used as a last resort, correct?” Hainey asked.
“As a last resort, I’m not directly familiar with that, no,” Pietrzak said.
In response, Hainey read from the RCMP training material: “’Law and RCMP policy indicate that you are only to use force as a last resort.’ So you’re trained to only use force as a last resort?”
“It certainly says that here, your honor,” Pietrzak replied.
Hainey also noted that officers should not use force as retaliation.
“You’re also taught you can’t use force as retaliation for something the suspect did?” asked Hainey.
“I’m not quite sure I understand that … if a subject punches you in the face, I would suggest you’re entitled to use force.”
During his struggle with police, Russell did not throw any of his own strikes at the officers, and Const. Donahue tested earlier in the trial that he did not feel he had been assaulted by Russell.
During last testimony from the Crown’s use-of-force expert, Staff Sgt. Leonard McCoshen, he said the multiple punches Pietrzak threw at Russell were inconsistent with RCMP training, suggesting they were “punitive strikes” instead of distractionary strikes.
In his own testimony, Pietrzak noted that any use of force “shouldn’t be personal ever, you should always try to remain as composed as possible.”
Pietrzak objected to the Crown’s suggestion that his strikes against Russell fell under the “physical control – hard” definition, found in the RCMP’s Incident Management Intervention Model – the framework used by officers to assess and manage risk in encounters with the public.
According to the manual, these types of strikes should generally be used when a subject is exhibiting “assaultive” behaviour, but Pietrzak contended his strikes were simply “distractionary.”
“I wasn’t swinging for the fences, they were short, quick distraction blows,” Pietrzak said.
Hainey noted Pietrzak injured his hand during the arrest and had to leave his shift early to seek assessment at the hospital. Hainey said this suggested the punches he threw at Russell were quite hard, but Pietrzak was not willing to concede that his hand injury occurred as a result of hitting Russell’s face.
Pietrzak also would not concede the laceration that Russell received above his left eye during the incident occurred as a result of his punches, noting the cut could have occurred when the three officers eventually pushed Russell face first into the gravel.
Much of the trial has focused around how Pietrzak’s actions measure up to his RCMP training, but Pietrzak testified Wednesday that the “human element” of the incident has been missing during the trial.
“There’s a lot of technical stuff that’s been discussed, but this all happened from the time the call happened … was two minutes, and the actual interaction with Mr. Russell was 10 to 14 seconds,” Pietrzak said.
“From my point of view, I relied on what I was trained to do. I did what I thought was the best option at that time … I’m not quite sure what else I could have done.”
He noted that he was not trained to carry out a conducted energy weapons – a taser – at the time, but he “made the conscious decision” after the incident to take the training so he’d be able to use one in the future.
While Russell admitted in his own testimony back in May that he had drank a significant amount of alcohol and used cocaine on the day the incident occurred, he said he was not heavily intoxicated. While he was sitting in a truck in the parking lot when Const. Carter first approached him, he said he was in the passenger seat, and did not have the truck’s keys on him.
He refused to provide a breath sample to Const. Carter, which led to the attempted arrest.
In an ongoing civil suit Russell has filed against Pietrzak and the RCMP, Russell’s lawyer Michael Patterson said his client had “no obligations to comply with unlawful demands,” as “his keys were not in his possession or near him and he was not in violation of any criminal or bylaw offenses.”
Const. Donahue and Carter testedified they never found the keys to the truck on Russell or in the truck
The defense’s own expert witness in the case is expected to continue his testimony Thursday. Hainey said he hopes all evidence in the case will be completed by the end of the day Thursday, followed by closing submissions on Oct. 7.