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‘Why didn’t they keep him safe?’: Family, First Nations leaders question Winnipeg police after man’s death in custody

Family and First Nations leaders are questioning the response by Winnipeg police following the death of an Indigenous man taken into custody.

Elias Whitehead, 37, died on Oct. 15 after going into medical distress. Witness video appears to show officers using force to restrain an individual who family says was Whitehead.

His partner, Jody Beardy, said the video is traumatizing and that police failed him.

“Where was his help? Why didn’t they keep him safe? Regardless of the situation, they failed him,” Beardy said at a news conference Thursday.

She said Whitehead was in Winnipeg to finish a heavy machinery course last month. The video appears to show police on top of an individual and twice one officer knees the person.

At the time, police said officers responded to an individual acting erratically and running into traffic at Sherbrook and Broadway. He was taken into custody, went into medical distress and later died in hospital.

“We are here to discuss the circumstances surrounding the tragic and unnecessary death of Elias Whitehead,” said Garrison Settee, the grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO).

Officials with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) said Whitehead had no criminal history or history of substance abuse and they are questioning the use of force by officers, saying this is an example of violence against First Nations people.

“Elias Whitehead was experiencing a health issue when he lost his life at the hands of Winnipeg police,” said Chief Taralee Beardy of Tataskweyak Cree Nation.

In an online post, Police Chief Danny Smyth says the officers responded that night to a report of a man jumping in front of a woman’s vehicle and punching a window. He says the individual was combative and officers were met with resistance.

“I do know that they needed to use force to control the situation,” said Smyth speaking with CTV News Winnipeg Thursday.

The Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba (IIU) is investigating the incident. Smyth was asked if he was comfortable with the use of force seen in the video and said that would be part of the IIU’s investigation which will take time, adding he doesn’t know the cause of death yet.

“You know the police will be cooperating with the investigation, which will include our officers accounting for their actions and will also include the use of force.”

Whitehead’s family and AMC leadership are calling for more witnesses to come forward and they want a meeting with Smyth and Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham to discuss the broader issue of what they see as violence against First Nations people.

Both Smyth and the mayor are open to discussions with leaders and say they speak with them frequently.

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