Parents angry after teen says she was aggressively interrogated by off-duty Winnipeg police officer

The Winnipeg Police Service’s professional standards unit is investigating a complaint by a father who says an off-duty officer aggressively interrogated his 14-year-old daughter at her high school until she was in tears, with the officer saying she hit his car with her hand while crossing the street.

The girl and her parents say it was a simple misunderstanding that could have been easily resolved, but they allege the man used his authority as a police officer to try to force her to confess to something she insists she didn’t do. 

“It was almost like he kept mentioning [he was a police officer] because he felt he was on a higher standard than us,” the 14-year-old girl said.

“I couldn’t really speak up as I was crying, but he just …wouldn’t let it go.” 

CBC has agreed to withhold the names of the teen and her parents, as they fear repercussions for sharing their story. 

Const. Dani McKinnon, a public information officer for the Winnipeg Police Service, said in an email that “the professional standards unit was made aware immediately after this incident, and continues to investigate.”

‘Wouldn’t take my no for an answer’

The girl, who attends Shaftesbury High School in southwest Winnipeg, said that around 3:45 p.m. last Monday, she missed the bus home and decided to go back into her school to wait for the next one.

As she crossed the street toward the school, she passed a car that was parked in the middle of the crosswalk, which forced her and another girl to have to pass behind it, she said.

Shortly after, a man came running toward her, she said, saying she hit his car and that he was an off-duty police officer. 

“Come with me. I need to talk to your principal with you,” she recalls him saying.

The girl said she followed him into the school, where she and the man told the principal and vice-principal their sides of story.

The man, who was the passenger in a car driven by his wife, maintained that the girl hit the car when she passed it. She said he was angry that she wouldn’t admit to that.

“I felt angry and frustrated,” the teen said. “I even pointed out when we were going up the crosswalk there was another person, and it wasn’t just me, and he wouldn’t take my no for an answer.”

‘Full-on interrogation’

The girl called her father to the school. He said when he got there, he was shocked at how aggressively the man was talking to his daughter, conducting what he described as “a full-on interrogation.”

According to the father, the man accused the teen of lying, telling her to “just admit that you did it and we can move forward.”

A closeup photo shows a man's hands.
The teen’s father says he was shocked by the way the off-duty police officer interrogated his daughter. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

His daughter was “just crying the whole time,” the father said.

“She kept saying, ‘I did not do it, I did not do it.’ Any time he would want her to admit it, she would … burst out crying again.” 

The father said he felt powerless in the situation because the man was a police officer, and he didn’t know what might happen to him or his daughter if they didn’t co-operate. 

“You grow up to respect the law, right? You think the law is right,” the dad said.

“So how do you talk to an off-duty police officer? I don’t know what kind of retribution I’m going to get after. But he wasn’t happy that I didn’t agree with him.”

The father said the off-duty officer’s wife showed them a picture of the car, and he couldn’t see any damage.

He didn’t go to check the vehicle, saying when he tried, the off-duty officer told him doing so “proves guilt again.”

‘Policemen don’t apologize’

The girl’s mother said she when she saw how upset her daughter and husband were when they got home, she immediately dialled the city’s 311 hotline.

“I felt almost sick to my stomach, because my daughter came in and she was just wailing.… I’ve never heard those sounds coming out of my daughter,” her mom said. 

“I’m asking her, ‘What’s wrong, what’s wrong?’ And she can’t even get her words out. She’s shaking.”

The mom said the 311 operator gave them a number for the Winnipeg Police Services’ professional standards unit, which her husband later called.

That unit, which reports directly to the police chief, is responsible for managing complaints against Winnipeg police officers.

The parents say they demanded the man apologize to their daughter, an honour roll student and a hockey player, whom he’d embarrassed at her school. 

“If you want to come up to her and accuse her … and be so aggressive about it in such a public place, at her own school, I think you should be able to be a big enough man to apologize to this little girl,” the mom said. 

But they say they were baffled when an officer from the professional standards unit said an apology by the police was off the table. 

“Policemen don’t apologize,” the dad says he was told by the standards unit officer.

Blurring the lines 

Lawyer Mary Birdsell is the executive director of Justice for Children and Youth in Ontario, which provides legal services for young people.

She said while she can’t comment on the specifics of this case, an off-duty police officer who thinks they are the victim of a crime should generally ask on-duty personnel to deal with the matter.

“If there’s a policing matter at stake, like there’s a car accident or something of that nature … where the police need to be involved, then certainly you would call an on-duty police officer to engage in that situation,” she said. 

There are safety concerns about a young person being told to follow someone who says they are a police officer, but who isn’t in uniform and doesn’t show a badge, she said.

“If there’s … a police matter at stake, then really it should be an on-duty police officer who’s interacting with young people.”

Mary Birdsell is the executive director of Justice for Children and Youth. She says off-duty police officers should let their on-duty colleagues handle matters involving young people. (Robin Kuniski)

James Loewen, a communications officer for the Pembina Trails School Division — which includes Shaftesbury High School — said the division can’t comment on an ongoing police investigation. 

When asked in past about other incidents involving the conduct of its members, the Winnipeg Police Service has said members of the public can file complaints with the professional standards unit or the Law Enforcement Review Agency, an independent civilian agency that looks into complaints about the conduct of municipal police officers. 

The family says they are still deciding how to proceed because, based on their initial discussions with the police, they aren’t confident the matter will be dealt with fairly. 

The dad said the police have asked them for evidence to prove their claim — a request he finds strange, since a lack of evidence didn’t stop the off-duty police officer from demanding a confession from his daughter, he says.

The teen and her parents say they’re sharing her story because they believe the off-duty officer should have handled things differently. 

“You reacted so harshly, thinking somebody hit the trunk of your car. Wow. What would you do if it was a different situation?” the girl’s mom asked. 

“I just want off-duty police officers … and law enforcement in general to acknowledge that this happens to a lot of people, and maybe be nicer to us,” the girl said. 

“We’re all just human and it’s not [for] you to be … on a higher standard than the rest of us. We’re all the same.”

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