After officer receives no punishment for violent knee on neck arrest, Edmonton man seeks justice in civil courts

After brutal treatment from the Edmonton Police Service, one man’s only path to a shred of justice is through the civil courts.

In July of 2018, Jean-Claude Rukundo got a call from his wife: she’d been in a car accident and needed help. He rushed to the scene, and was there on the phone helping his wife report to the insurance company when EPS officers arrived. And that’s when things took a dark turn.

In a written statement to investigators and an official complaint to the police, Mr. Rukundo and his wife Sifa Ngeze described the situation: officers belligerently engaged him, accused him of being drunk, and demanded he leave the scene of the accident. Rukundo initially refused to leave his wife at the accident alone, but complied when officers demanded it. As he tried to leave an officer tackled him, punched him, threatened to tase him, and in a disturbing echo of the murder of George Floyd, put his knee and the full weight of his body on Rukundo’s neck. 

“Stop resisting or you’ll get fucking tasered,” you can hear Detective Pierre Lemire say as he puts his knee on Rukundo’s head and neck.

Rukundo was released shortly after the violent arrest and all charges were eventually dropped against Rukundo.  

According to Rukundo’s statement of claim, one bystander –the driver of the other vehicle in the accident – tried to record the incident on his phone. It was seized by police. The video we see of the arrest was taken by Sifa Ngeze and wasn’t released publicly until summer of this year. 

Over a year later, in November of 2019, EPS chief Dale McFee responded to the complaint. There would be no disciplinary hearing. One officer involved, Lemire, received a warning for swearing. And that was it.

Rukundo’s counsel says they have photo evidence showing just how severely he was injured in the exchange. His face was bruised and bloodied. In Rukundo’s statement of claim he alleges that he suffered a brain injury in the takedown and is struggling to cope with post-tramautic stress from having been assaulted by police officers.

But with EPS refusing to pursue this any further, Rukundo has been left to seek justice the only way that’s left –by filing a civil suit for $650,000 against the officers who abused him and Chief Dale McFee.

The statement of claim was filed with Edmonton Court of Queen's Bench in July. No statement of defence has yet been filed by Detective Pierre Lemire, Constable Owen Staudinger or Chief Dale McFee.

It’s far from an optimal solution. EPS has massive advantages in a civil court situation, not the least of which is their unlimited budget when it comes to lawyers. Even in the rare cases where civil suits against the police win, civil judgments don’t result in officers being fired or disciplined and financial awards tend to be small. In 2005, for example, Constable Dan Williams was found liable for $7000 in damages after kicking Victoria Potts in the face while arresting her in 1998. But despite this judgment, Williams continued on the force – in fact, he continued an assignment where he worked in a high school, a troubling fact we dug up in our research into the school resource officer program

Perhaps if police were not investigating themselves Jean-Claude Rukundo would not be left to an unfair fight in the courts. The Police Act is presently under review, but it’s unlikely that Alberta’s current Justice Minister Kaycee Madu, who has spent much of 2020 performatively fist-shaking at Black Lives Matter and the defund the police movement, is interested in reforms that would keep police in check.

The civilian organization tasked with providing oversight of the police was aware of the matter, having been apprised as early as November 2019 by the police chief himself. But there have been no statements from the commission on this case, and apparently no pressure from the commission for more substantive action than the mere slap-on-the-wrist for swearing.

According to Micki Ruth, the chair of the Edmonton Police Commission, “the knee-on-neck restraint technique is not approved for use by the Edmonton Police Service nor are officers trained to use it.  The Commission supports this position.”

Two city councillors sit on the police commission, councillors Tim Cartmell and Sarah Hamilton. The Edmonton Police Service refused to comment 

In 2018, for trying to help his own wife at the scene of an accident, Jean-Claude Rukundo was nearly made into Edmonton’s own George Floyd. The internal disciplinary processes of the police and the oversight of the police commission, which are meant to protect us, did nothing for him. Now his only recourse is an uphill battle in the courts – where even if he wins, the officers who abused him will remain on the force.