- Robson Crim
He Said, She Said… but Video Recording Shows: R. v. Anobis and the Case for Body Cameras in Winnipeg
Written by Nathan Dueck
“This is a significant discrepancy.” “Highly suspicious, convenient and almost implausible.” “Simply put I cannot accept the events in those locations had transpired in the manner testified to.” These are all conclusions by Manitoban provincial court judges concerning sworn testimony from Winnipeg police officers over the past few months. Needless to say, they do not inspire confidence in our criminal justice system.
And these examples are especially remarkable given the increasingly cheap and accessible means available to record officers in the situations to which they were testifying above. One might think that both the police and those accusing them of misconduct would be keen to implement these methods in order to ensure the credibility of their respective narratives. Yet an unlikely coalition of politicians, law enforcement groups and police critics seem united in opposing the use of body cameras. So long as they continue to do so, we can expect further instances of implausible police testimony that continue to damage the credibility of our criminal justice system.
A case that clearly shows both the practice of dubious police testimony in Winnipeg and the need for body cameras is R. v. Anobis, which was decided in April 2022. Briefly, Shaun Anobis was hanging out at a house in the West End when he left his phone unattended and, upon return, realized that it had been stolen. Anobis then used another device to show that his phone was now in the house next door. Anobis then stormed over to the next-door house in question, looked around but, failing to find the phone, went to leave. As he was approaching the front door, Anobis encountered two police officers who had been called about a possible Break & Enter.
At this point the testimonies of Anobis and the officers, Constables Sriram and Chymyshyn, diverge substantially. Anobis maintains that he complied with the officers’ instructions to remove his hands from his pockets, but they nevertheless proceeded to grab his arms, move him to the ground of the front lawn, position themselves on top of him, hit him repeatedly, and taser him numerous times. He said that while he was visibly upset about the loss of his phone, he was never aggressive towards the police themselves or non-compliant with their instructions.
In contrast, Sriram testified that Anobis was belligerent and that their (“they” being the two officers) conduct was appropriate given the danger he posed to them. Sriram maintained that Anobis was “very amped out,” and, while he eventually complied with instructions to show his hands, he only did so while approaching the officers in a manner that made them concerned for their safety. They then proceeded to take his arms, lead him to the fence of the property’s front lawn, searched his pockets and discovered a pocket knife, at which point Anobis turned around and punched one of the officers. The two officers then guided him to the ground and Anobis “turtled,” meaning he manoeuvred himself to be facedown in a curled position with his hands under his body. From this position, Anobis allegedly kicked one of the officers multiple times and refused to show his hands from their position under his body. While being kicked, one of the officers responded by knee-striking him numerous times and, after Anobis continued to refuse to comply, tased him “approximately” three times. They eventually handcuffed and arrested him.
Constable Chymyshyn’s testimony conflicted with his partner’s in two aspects. First, Chymyshyn was far less clear than Sriram about the status of Anobis’ hands when they first encountered him and the fact that he eventually complied with the order, indicating that “during this time [Anobis] still would not comply with his hands out of his pockets… Eventually the male moved down to where the officers were but he was not listening to their verbal commands.” While Chymyshyn didn’t explicitly deny that Anobis had in fact removed his hands before they grabbed him, most listeners to the testimony would likely assume that the accused was approaching the officers without showing his hands. Second, Chymyshyn’s account of the order of events differs from Sriram's in that the former maintained that Anobis began punching and kicking the officers before the knife was taken from his pocket, while the latter testified that the punches and kicks happened after Anobis had been disarmed.
Chymyshyn’s version of events supports the police’s decision to use force against Anobis far more strongly than Sriram’s testimony. According to the former, Anobis apparently had not removed his hands by the time the police grabbed him, and began to attack them before he had been disarmed. But the Sriram account — that Anobis had actually complied with the officers’ instructions and was merely moving towards them in a potentially threatening manner, and that his knife had been removed from his person before his alleged punches and kicks — fits less easily with a defence of the police’s use of force in this situation.
While the discrepancies between these two reports themselves cast doubt on the credibility of the officers’ testimony, Judge Heinrichs acknowledged that the two officers could not be reasonably expected to remember the incident identically. But Heinrichs noted several other concerns that cannot be explained by honest differences in recollection. First, while Sriram said that he tased Anobis “three times — approximately,” a taser report entered into evidence showed that electricity had been released thirteen times over the course of 41 seconds. Second, Heinrichs noted that there were issues with the creation of the officers’ notes in the months following the incident.
Finally — and of greatest interest to this blog post — a video taken by a civilian observing the ‘arrest adds unflattering context to the officers’ accounts, including that one of the officers calls Anobis a “piece of shit” and says “I don’t give a fuck.” The video also shows that the officers had Anobis up against the fence after he was taken to the ground, contradicting Sriram’s claim that the only time Anobis was up against the fence was before he was taken to the ground. Ultimately, while the Judge had some doubts about the truth of Anobis’ testimony as well, he had enough concerns about the credibility of the officers’ accounts that he found Anobis not guilty of assaulting the officers.
Unfortunately, the recording, which began mid-way through the arrest, failed to capture the two key moments in the interaction: when and whether Anobis removed his hands, and if he punched and kicked the officers. As a result, Judge Heinrichs was forced to adjudicate between three different versions of the event, all of which he felt were not entirely credible. Yet if even partial footage of the arrest had an impact on his decision, we can assume that even more of the testimonial discrepancies could have been addressed if the two constables had worn body cameras throughout the entire interaction. While the cameras might not have completely captured the alleged punches or kicks, they almost certainly would have shown if and when Anobis complied with the officers’ instructions to remove his hands from his pockets as he approached them. The cameras likely would have recorded the entire verbal exchange between the two parties as well. Shaun Anobis himself sees value in body cameras when used properly — when I reached out to ask whether he wished the constables who arrested him had been wearing cameras, he told me that “of course” he did, although he suspected that they would have deleted the footage after the fact.
R. v. Anobis had no winners. Anobis was found not guilty of assaulting the officers but, if his account was accurate, was the victim of police brutality. And the Winnipeg Police Service lost credibility with the public they’re supposed to serve; following Heinrich’s decision, the anti-police group Winnipeg Police Cause Harm posted a link to an article about the case with the caption “Cops lie. Always. #abolishthepolice” that received hundreds of likes on Instagram.
Yet, in the aftermath of the trial, neither police critics nor officials called for a body camera system that would have corroborated the accurate version of events. The Winnipeg Police Cause Harm Twitter page is riddled with posts opposing this technology, largely based on the argument that the cost of operating them runs contrary to their appeal to defund the police. Police officials are wary, ostensibly, for cost-related concerns as well. When a proposal to purchase the cameras was raised again last year, Winnipeg Police Association Moe Sabourin worried that they’d come at the cost of Winnipeggers’ safety, asking “is [the cost of the cameras] going to result in cuts to the service of the citizens of Winnipeg? So something has to give.” And in the face of opposition from both police and anti-police groups, city hall lost interest as well; last year, Winnipeg’s Executive Policy Committee voted 6-1 against purchasing the cameras, with Mayor Bowman arguing that the police have the funds within their existing budget to purchase the cameras if they wish to do so.
Winnipeg Police Cause Harm, the Winnipeg Police Association, and the City of Winnipeg Executive Policy Committee have a point: body cameras come at a cost. But I submit that not using these cameras comes at a cost as well. Every time a judge calls an officer’s narrative “implausible,” or throws out a case because they find significant discrepancies with police testimony, there is a cost to public trust in law enforcement. It might not be as visible as millions of dollars in a budget line, but it manifests itself in serious ways. When members of the public come to believe that many of their cops are lying under oath, it contributes to a culture of suspicion that makes many vulnerable Winnipeggers feel unprotected. And when decisions like Heinrichs’ in R. v. Anobis strongly suggest that not all of our police officers can be trusted to offer credible testimony, it signals that officials in our justice system are failing to uphold their responsibilities to the communities they’ve sworn to serve. These realities cost the public their sense of security and confidence in our criminal justice system — and I’m convinced that if body cameras can address even some of these costs, they’ll be worth every penny.
 R v Anobis, 2022 MBPC 17 at para 31.  Cameron MacLean, “Judge acquits Winnipeg officer of trying to block own speeding ticket despite 'almost implausible' defence”, CBC News (11 March, 2022), online: <www.cbc.ca> [https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/winnipeg-police-officer-speeding-ticket-aquittal-1.6382074].  Danton Unger, “Winnipeg police officer Sean Cassidy cleared of assault charge”, CTV News (10 May 2022), online: <winnipeg.ctvnews.ca> [https://winnipeg.ctvnews.ca/mobile/winnipeg-police-officer-sean-cassidy-cleared-of-assault-charge-1.5895229?cache=yesclipId104062?clipId=89619].  Anobis, supra note 1, at paras 1-4.  Ibid at paras 5-8.  Ibid at para 9.  Ibid at paras 9-14.  Ibid at para 16.  Ibid at paras 15-17.  Ibid at para 20.  Ibid at paras 21-26.  Ibid at para 27.  Ibid at paras 28-38.  Shaun Anobis, in discussion with author, October 2022.  @wpgpoliceharm. Instagram, 8 April 2022. Accessed 10 October 2022. https://www.instagram.com/p/CcG1mpBr0tO/.  A list of some of these posts can be found by following this link: https://twitter.com/search?q=%40wpgpoliceharm%20body%20cameras&src=typed_query.  Jeff Keele, “Police board chair wants city to study body camera potential for Winnipeg cops”, CTV News (26 March 2021), online: <winnipeg.ctvnews.ca> [https://winnipeg.ctvnews.ca/police-board-chair-wants-city-to-study-body-camera-potential-for-winnipeg-cops-1.5363817].  Jeff Keele, “Plan to purchase police body cameras hits road block in Winnipeg”, CTV News (12 June 2021), online: <winnipeg.ctvnews.ca> [https://winnipeg.ctvnews.ca/plan-to-purchase-police-body-cameras-hits-road-block-in-winnipeg-1.5473715].