Winnipeg officers cleared in death of handcuffed man experiencing ‘cocaine intoxication’: police watchdog

A man who died shortly after being handcuffed by Winnipeg police near the Manitoba Legislature was experiencing excessive “cocaine intoxication,” according to the provincial police watchdog, which has cleared officers of any wrongdoing.

Winnipeg police were called Nov. 4, 2021, about a man behaving aggressively and erratically on and just off Osborne Street, in the area of the legislature grounds. Officers arrived about 7:15 p.m., states the report from the Independent Investigation Unit, the civilian oversight agency for police in Manitoba.

The man was handcuffed and collapsed shortly after. The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service was on site and immediately administered CPR. The man was rushed to St. Boniface Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The man was later identified by family as George Simeonidis Jr., who owned Santa Lucia Pizza on Corydon Avenue.

Simeonidis owned Santa Lucia Pizza on Corydon Avenue. (Submitted by Jessica Simeonidis)

The IIU investigated the incident, but was delayed in the process due to autopsy and toxicology reports taking longer than anticipated, according to its report, which was released Thursday.

An autopsy was conducted on Nov. 5, 2021, and the results — which the investigative unit says were “critical to this investigation” — were expected within six months. However, IIU investigators did not receive the reports until 361 days later. 

The autopsy report noted the cause of death was cocaine intoxication, with an enlarged heart being a contributing factor, the IIU said.

The toxicology report said the man had a “substantial and excessive amount” of the drug in his system, the investigative unit’s report states.

In addition to the autopsy reports, investigators with the police watchdog agency reviewed information that included:

  • Police dispatch call history.
  • 911 telephone call history and audio.
  • Officers’ notes and narratives.
  • Forensic identification service reports.
  • Photographs of scene and exhibits.
  • The fire-paramedic service’s patient care report.
  • Surveillance video recordings from the Legislative Building grounds, the Canada Life building (across the street from the legislature) and Winnipeg Transit.

Investigators met with, interviewed and reviewed the written statements of 12 civilian witnesses, including firefighters and paramedics.

According to the IIU report, which doesn’t mention Simeonidis by name, the man was “acting in an incoherent, erratic and aberrant manner as he walked in, out [of] and through heavy traffic on Osborne Street,” near the legislature grounds.

At various times, he would pace back and forth between northbound and southbound traffic or lie down on the centre line. On several occasions, he crawled on all fours, the report states.

When police arrived, the man’s behaviour seemed paranoid, and he spoke incoherently, according to the report.

Officers spoke to him in an attempt to calm him and allow fire-paramedic personnel to assess his vital signs, but the man tried to return to the roadway, the report says. In order to stop him, officers took him to the ground and handcuffed him.

“All witnesses confirm (and corroborated by the various video footage) that the police acted to calm [Simeonidis] and allow for paramedics to treat him over concerns of his well-being,” IIU civilian director Zane Tessler wrote in his report.

“There was no police action or inaction through their application of force and restraint that contributed in any degree to [the] death,” he wrote.

“The circumstances of this incident represent another tragic example of the illicit use of drugs such as cocaine. The IIU mandate was to determine whether any police officer, by action or inaction, contributed in any way to the death.”

As there are no grounds to suggest that was the case, the  matter is now closed, the report states.

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