Leah Bull, a 46-year-old Cree woman is suing the RCMP and several of its officers, asking the court to award her $450,000, after an Alberta judge ruled she acted in self-defence when she struggled against being forcibly confined without being lawfully arrested.
In the early morning hours of Jan. 2, 2011, RCMP officers at the detachment in Hobbema, Alberta got a call about a woman lying in a snowbank.
Officers responded. But something went terribly wrong.
In the end, Bull, had a black eye and numerous bruises and scrapes. She was left naked in a holding cell for close to four hours.
Because of the civil lawsuit, none of the parties would agree to an interview.
But the story of what happened unfolds in court documents and exhibits.
Bull was originally charged with assaulting the police officers.
She was acquitted in 2012 because the judge couldn’t determine it was clear she was under arrest.
“The officers were not in lawful execution of their duties,” the judge ruled, meaning Bull’s actions were self-defence.
When two RCMP officers responded to that early morning call in 2011, Bull stood up. She didn’t want to give her name, or have anything to do with the police.
During Bull’s assault trial, Constable Scott Hearn told the court he could smell alcohol on her breath.
“I told her she was under arrest for public intoxication and it immediately went sideways,” he said.
Bull dropped to the ground. She testified later that she never heard the officer tell her she was under arrest.
And neither did the second officer on the scene, Constable Krystal Moren.
“The female is just limp . . . she is laying down on her stomach face down . . . the female is very uncooperative . . . she is not saying anything . . . she is just limp,” Moren testified.
Watch: This cellblock video from 2011 shows Leah Bull in cells at the Maskwacis (Hobbema) RCMP detachment in Alberta where the Cree woman was left naked for close to four hours.
Court transcripts show the officers pulled Bull up and tried to get her into the police truck.
“She continued to struggle, fight the whole time,” said Hearn. “It was a pretty big fight.”
Two more officers arrived on scene. Court testimony and police notes describe a chaotic scene in which the officers are punching and striking Bull to subdue her. And Bull is swinging her arms, kicking and spitting, going limp; resisting attempts to put her in the truck.
None of that scene is captured on camera. But once the police arrive back at the detachment, police videos show Bull being dragged out of the truck and put on the floor of the garage. A spit hood is placed on her head.
There were, at that point, seven officers dealing with Bull.
She was shoved against the truck, then back to the floor, handcuffed and finally dragged out of the garage to the cell.
Once in the cell, officers testified that Bull said she wanted to die. And so a group of officers, including men, held her down and stripped her.
The operation manual for RCMP K division, which is Alberta, refers to using a “restraint jacket if a prisoner is considered suicidal.”
But in the court exhibits, a document titled “Guard room meeting,” for the Hobbema detachment, now called Maskwacis, specifically states “all suicidal prisoners will be dressed in baby dolls.”
The baby doll is a garment given to the inmate to preserve modesty, and it’s designed in a way that makes it harder to use for self-harm.
In the video, the officers leave Bull lying on the floor of the cell, naked, with the baby doll placed over her head. She lies there for several minutes, unmoving.
The notes from the guard room meeting also state “all prisoners are to be treated with respect and dignity.”
And the policy outlined in the RCMP operational manual’s section on strip searches is to “conduct a strip search only on a person of the same gender.”
“When the police had stripped me, when they had stripped me, the men and the women, there was more men than women. And I felt violated…they hadn’t raped me physically but they raped me spiritually. They stole that from me,” Bull testified at her trial.
When she was left in the cell, Bull said she couldn’t get the baby doll down over head to wear it.
She flung herself against the door. She stuck her head in the toilet, but said later that it was only a frantic attempt to get out of the cell, to get medical treatment.
Male and female officers quickly entered the cell.
In the cellblock video, Bull appears to lay passively on the floor while the officers empty the toilet of water.
The officer in charge at that time, Corporal Ray Starzynksi, took the baby doll dress away and Bull was left naked in cells for another three and a half hours, still under surveillance.
Starzynksi did not record notes of the incident at the time. He wrote what’s called a supplementary occurrence report four months later.
He said described Bull as a “high risk” female that “needed to be dealt with accordingly.” He referred to her as “overweight,” and “obviously mentally disturbed.”
The RCMP operations manual states, “Members are not qualified or expected to make a diagnosis of mental illness.”
And in contrast, the paramedics who took Bull from the detachment to the hospital hours later, described her as “in obvious distress,” her injuries from “assault in RCMP custody.”
At Bull’s trial for her assault charges, Starzynksi testified she bit his arm when he and other officers were trying to get her in the police truck. He struck Bull several times with an empty hand.
He was concerned that she was a potential drug user or had HIV.
“Hepatitis A, B, C, it’s rampant in First Nations communities, we know that,” Starzynksi said on the stand.
But Bull hadn’t broken his skin and Starzynksi was not required to take a cocktail of drugs as a precaution.
The Crown asked Starzynksi why, if Bull had bitten him, that she was not charged with assaulting him as well.
“I inquired as to additional charges in regards to the assault upon myself,” replied Starzynksi. “And I was told by my supervisors or superiors at the detachment that it seemed vindictive.”
Though Bull was acquitted of the assault charges, the trauma of what happened to her remains.
Click below to read Leah Bull’s statement of claim against the RCMP
Her civil suit against the RCMP is now before the Queen’s Court of Bench in Edmonton.
Her filed statement of claim in the civil suit outlines the impacts on Bull; significant bruising, an orbital fracture, tinnitus, and memory problems and psychological injuries.
Bull has been undergoing counselling since the incident, her medical records citing post-traumatic stress disorder.
The claim states the officers assaulted her. That they were negligent. That the RCMP itself is negligent for not providing better training and supervision. And the file claims one officer in particular was “reckless, callous, high-handed, oppressive and reprehensible.”
Bull and her lawyer Shelagh Weir Bowen don’t want to comment on the civil suit while it’s still before the courts.
The RCMP in Alberta emailed the following statement to APTN:
“The RCMP in Alberta is committed to ensuring the safety and security of the communities it serves. That is a responsibility we take very seriously. Though our members face challenging situations during the course of their day-to day duties, they are trained to respond to situations based on the behaviour of the person or persons involved. In this particular instance, there were concerns for the individual’s safety and for the safety of our employees. The RCMP in Alberta understands that public trust is essential to effectively serve and protect our communities and we are committed to safeguarding that trust by ensuring any reports about employee actions are fully examined. At this time, we have a limited ability to comment on particulars of this case as the matter is still before the courts.”
The case is still before the courts. It’s been adjourned while the two sides dispute some of the evidence.
No word on when it will resume.