Winnipeg police constable abused authority by making threats against hotel and staff

A Winnipeg police officer has been demoted for threatening to harm a city business for their perceived refusal to turn over surveillance footage.

Const. Richard Comte was found to have abused his authority in repeated attempts to obtain security video shot at the Green Brier Inn, during an investigation into an alleged sexual assault in October 2015.

Under the Law Enforcement Review Act (LERA), Judge Sid Lerner ruled the conduct of the 17-year police officer, which rose to abusive language and a threat that police wouldn’t respond to future disturbances at the Main Street hotel with urgency, was unbecoming.

Comte will forfeit his promotion to patrol sergeant for threatening to harm the business, and was docked five days pay for abusive conduct and language, Lerner wrote in his decision released on Monday.

Semi-veiled threat

Hotel day manager Veerinder Raien testified that Comte was “easy to talk to,” but by his third visit the officer said he’d come back on the hotel’s busiest night if he didn’t get the footage.

The semi-veiled threat was the beginning of a concerning pattern, the judge wrote in his 14-page decision.

On the next visit, Comte threatened to arrest the hotel owner, Jonathan Singh, for his perceived failure to provide evidence. Raien explained he was out of the country and she did not have access to the server.

Comte would later get Singh, who was out of the country, over the phone. He threatened a slow response time and Singh’s arrest if he didn’t receive what he wanted.

He would repeat his threat in a phone conversation with Const. Andrew Tighe, which the 24-year police veteran recorded. He was not swayed by his colleague trying to reason that Singh was out of the country and generally co-operative with police. 

Green Brier Inn owner Jonathan Singh receives multiple inquiries a week for video surveillance from police and he compiles every time, his lawyer Robert Tapper says. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Comte appeared to genuinely believe Singh was being difficult, the judge wrote.

The hotel owner should “realize that next time he’s got a whole bunch of Manitoba Warrior a——- in his bar, he’s not f—— play from us,” Comte said in a transcript of the phone conversation.

He escalated his threat by saying that police wouldn’t rush to Singh’s hotel the next time they’re called.

“You know damn well what happens to establishments who are not police-friendly, cause that’s what I’m telling you from, officer-to-officer,” he told Const. Tighe.

While no individual officer can insist on non-service, the court was told, the judge said that’s immaterial. “There was clearly enough of an air of reality to it,” that hotel staff would have been concerned, Lerner said.

The judge was further concerned that Comte sought to further harm Singh’s business, even after a complaint was lodged with LERA.

Comte suggested a joint investigation of the establishment with a liquor inspector, after seeing Singh talking to the woman at a wine festival in April 2016.

That same year, the cop told a lecture of junior police officers the only time he needed a production order to obtain a video was an incident involving Singh and his business, which depicted the hotel poorly in their eyes, Lerner wrote. 

The judge acknowledged that Comte had an otherwise spotless policing record and “glowing letters of reference.”

Short of policing standards

In striving for a thorough investigation, Comte was expressing urgency because he was worried the video footage would be overwritten by newer footage — as was ultimately the case.

But, the judge accepted, his actions did not involve a momentary lapse, but a sustained pattern of conduct that fell “far, far short of legitimacy or propriety,” Lerner wrote.

Veteran trial lawyer Robert Tapper, who represented Singh, said his client was relieved by the outcome.

He said Singh didn’t know that police wanted the footage, until he felt threatened over the phone.

“It happened several times a week where they would come to his bar, his hotel, and request surveillance and he would give it to them voluntarily.”

The Winnipeg Police Service said it would withhold comment as the officer has 30 days from the judge’s ruling to appeal the decision.