RunnersCruiser and motorbikeCruiser accident
thick blue gradient line

News Release

SIU Affirms Orillia Investigation After Reopening Case

Case Number: 13-PCI-083

Mississauga (4 August, 2015) --- Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) has reopened the investigation and  affirmed its decision into the custody injuries sustained by Ms. Maria Farrell in April of 2013.

In the SIU’s initial investigation, the Unit learned that at approximately 2:20 a.m. on Tuesday, April 2, 2013, Ontario Provincial Police officers responded to a report of a woman screaming in the vicinity of a Mac’s Milk store situated at 2 Colborne Street East in Orillia. The first officer to arrive in the area was Sgt Russell Watson. Sgt Watson located an apparent assault victim crying inconsolably on the street, being comforted by Ms. Farrell. There was an interaction between Ms. Farrell and the officer, and she sustained serious injuries.

As part of the SIU’s original investigation, four witness officers and five civilian witnesses, including Ms. Farrell, were interviewed. Subject officer Sgt Watson participated in two separate SIU interviews. Then-Director Ian Scott concluded that there were no reasonable grounds to believe that Sgt Watson used excessive force, and closed the case with no charges on May 9, 2013.

On December 16, 2014, Ms. Farrell was acquitted in the Ontario Court of Justice of several charges resulting from her arrest, on the day in question, by Sgt Watson for obstructing and assaulting a police officer.  In so doing, the Court made comments critical of Sgt Watson in the decision, prompting SIU Director Tony Loparco to commence a review of the investigation.  On March 4, 2015, Director Loparco announced that the SIU was reopening the investigation after its review turned up a material witness who had not been interviewed during the original investigation. As it turned out during the course of the second investigation, it was determined that this new witness attended at the incident after the interaction was over, and had nothing significant to add. 

In addition to interviewing the witness, the SIU gathered and considered the transcripts of evidence given at the trial, re-interviewed two of the original civilian witnesses, reviewed the statements provided by the civilians and the police officers in the original investigation (including Ms. Farrell’s statement and two statements made by Sgt Watson) and obtained another statement from Ms. Farrell through her lawyer.  Having reviewed the information gathered in the investigation and re-investigation, Director Loparco is satisfied that there remain no grounds to charge the subject officer – Sgt Watson – with a criminal offence.   

The totality of the information collected by the SIU’s investigations suggests that the following events took place in the early morning hours of April 2, 2013:

• Sgt Watson arrived at the scene of the reported assault and met with the assault victim intending to obtain information about the crime.  Ms. Farrell was with the assault victim, having heard her screams and gone to console her as she was walking with a friend to her friend’s home in the neighbourhood;

• Ms. Farrell became agitated with Sgt Watson and began to interfere with his ability to speak with the assault victim.  Sgt Watson cautioned her to step aside, probably using some profanity in the process, but Ms. Farrell failed to do so.  Instead, Ms. Farrell reached out and made contact with the officer’s jacket;

• Sgt Watson proceeded to grab Ms. Farrell’s arm telling her she was under arrest.  Ms. Farrell reacted by pulling away. The two tussled for a moment before Sgt Watson attempted to trip Ms. Farrell with his right leg.  The maneuver did not go as planned and Ms. Farrell fell awkwardly as Sgt Watson lost his balance and fell on top of her, fracturing her left tibia in the process; and

• Sgt Watson, now joined by another officer, continued to struggle with Ms. Farrell on the ground.  The subject officer delivered a short hand strike to Ms. Farrell’s face.  Shortly thereafter Ms. Farrell was handcuffed and taken into custody with the assistance of two more officers.

Director Loparco observed, “Subsection 25(1) of the Criminal Code authorizes the use of force by police officers, but only where the force in question is reasonably necessary in the execution of a lawful duty.  In this case, there were objectively reasonable grounds for Sgt Watson to believe that Ms. Farrell had committed the offence of assault when she reached out and made contact with his jacket. As a result, in my opinion, the arrest was lawful. The officer’s act of grabbing her arm while they were still standing, to effect that arrest, was also acceptable.”

Director Loparco continued, “I also have little difficulty concluding that the single strike to Ms. Farrell’s face while she was on the ground was justified in the circumstances. She had been able to thwart the substantial efforts of Sgt Watson and another officer to handcuff her and was not responding to verbal or physical commands. As a result I find that this use of force was reasonably necessary to effect the arrest in a relatively safe and expeditious manner.

“At trial Ms. Farrell indicated that, during this struggle, Sgt Watson knocked out a back tooth when he punched her in the face. If true it might indicate that the punch to her face used a substantial and perhaps excessive amount of force. However, the investigation determined that there were several versions of a possible tooth injury that exist which cast significant doubt about whether there had been any injury to Ms. Farrell’s tooth. First, and in my opinion the most likely version, is that she did not suffer an injury to her tooth as a result of the incident.  Ms. Farrell did not mention a loss of a tooth in the statement she provided the original SIU investigation nor do the medical reports from the time detail any such injury. Second, Ms. Farrell mentioned the loss of her back tooth for the first time at trial and indicated that “we found it (i.e. her tooth) on the pavement” at the time. Third, after the trial, when the SIU tried to confirm the loss of her tooth by seeking further medical or dental records, Ms. Farrell indicated, through her lawyer, that Sgt Watson had merely loosened her tooth when he struck her and she had extracted it herself at the hospital. The SIU was told that no medical/dental records exist to confirm this fact.”

Director Loparco said, “That leaves the decision to bring the complainant to the ground. I do not find that the officer kicked at her leg or stomped on it in the manner described by the complainant.  It is more likely, on the strength of the credible evidence, that he attempted to have her trip over his own leg. It is true that the officer was a presumably fit, much larger man who would not normally need to make such efforts to control a woman of the complainant’s size. However, the officer had already tried — unsuccessfully — to control the situation through verbal warnings and commands and by grabbing her arm. The decision to place her on the ground through the relatively minor use of force involved in a trip, although perhaps imprudent, was not unreasonable in the circumstances. That he executed this move awkwardly, resulting in the complainant’s injury, does not convert his actions into criminal conduct. Further an orthopaedic surgeon who examined Ms. Farrell indicated that she had very low bone density in her injured leg which in itself could have been a contributing factor in the severity of the injury.”

Director Loparco explained, “With respect to the decision rendered by the Justice at Ms. Farrell’s trial, it is important to appreciate that the Court’s perspective and the evidence before it differed significantly in comparison to the work of the SIU.  The issue before the Court was whether the Crown had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms. Farrell was guilty of assault and obstruction of justice, not whether Sgt Watson acted unlawfully in his dealings with Ms. Farrell.  In fact, at trial, there was no finding that the officer’s decision to arrest Ms. Farrell was unlawful and no finding was made that Sgt Watson used force that was criminally excessive notwithstanding the Court’s view that Sgt Watson did not apply ‘a minimum of force in maintaining the peace and protecting the public.’  The Court’s unique perspective also explains in some measure why the evidence at its disposal differed from what the SIU had to work with.  For example, had the issue, at trial, been whether Sgt Watson was himself guilty of an assault on Ms. Farrell, it is easy to imagine that the victim of the initial assault would have been called as a witness.  She was an independent witness to the events in question and gave a statement to the SIU corroborating Sgt Watson’s account that Ms. Farrell’s arrest and the struggle that ensued were prompted by Ms. Farrell when she reached out and made contact with the officer, important evidence bearing on the lawfulness of Ms. Farrell’s arrest and the propriety of the officer’s subsequent conduct.  As it was, the assault victim was not called as a witness at Ms. Farrell’s trial.  Nor was the Court in Ms. Farrell’s trial aware of the different versions that have been proffered regarding Ms. Farrell’s lost tooth, the medical information about low bone density and other significant discrepancies in the evidence that are only apparent when one compares the evidence at trial to the statements given to the SIU during the original and reopened investigations of this matter, none of which was available to the Court.”

“In the final analysis,” said Director Loparco, “I am not satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Sgt Watson committed a criminal offence in his dealings with Ms. Farrell notwithstanding the unfortunate and serious injuries she suffered during her arrest.”

The SIU is an arm’s length agency that investigates reports involving police where there has been death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault. Under the Police Services Act, the Director of the SIU must

  • consider whether an officer has committed a criminal offence  in connection with the incident under investigation
  • depending on the evidence, lay a criminal charge against the officer if appropriate or close the file without any charges being laid
  • report the results of any investigations to the Attorney General. 

Steven Gibbons,
SIU Communications/Service des communications, UES
Telephone/No de téléphone: 416-622-2342 or/ou 1-800-787-8529 extension 2342