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Loved ones of a First Nations man who died in police custody say officers failed to help him when he needed it most.

Family and friends of Elias Whitehead, along with First Nations leaders in Manitoba and Ontario, held a news conference Thursday calling for changes to how police approach wellness checks. They also voiced concern about the force Winnipeg officers used while taking the 37-year-old into custody last month.

“The police are supposed to keep people safe. They’re supposed to help people, but this wasn’t the case for Elias. Where was his help?” said Jody Beardy, Whitehead’s partner.

“Elias was a good man. He was kind. He would help anyone who needed it, and he would befriend anyone.”

Police have said officers were called to the West Broadway neighbourhood shortly before 11 p.m. on Oct. 15 after receiving reports of a man “in distress running into traffic and acting erratically.” Officers took him into custody, when he went into “medical distress,” police said in a news release. The man was declared dead at a hospital.

Manitoba’s police watchdog is investigating, as is required in all in-custody deaths or serious injuries involving police.

The Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba said in a news release that the man “began to have trouble breathing” during his arrest. The watchdog is asking for witnesses or anyone who may have video footage to contact them.

Cellphone video from that night provided to local media appears to show at least two officers holding a man face down on the road while trying to restrain him. Officers appear to punch the man in the side of his body several times.

Beardy said she felt like she couldn’t breathe when she saw the video and it has left her with more questions than answers.

“I still see it. I can’t sleep. I am traumatized by that video, and I wish I didn’t see it.”

Beardy last saw her partner over the Thanksgiving weekend while she visited him in Winnipeg. Whitehead and Beardy lived in her home community of Tataskweyak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, but Whitehead was originally from Webequie First Nation in northwestern Ontario.

The couple met in 2012 while taking a carpentry course in Winnipeg. Whitehead was living in the city again while taking a three-month course to become a heavy equipment operator. He was set to finish on Oct. 24.

Destiny Kitchekeesik, a community justice worker with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and from Tataskweyak, said Whitehead was humble and respectful, and had “dreams” for himself and Beardy.

Kitchekeesik is calling for Winnipeg police to sit down with the family to try to answer some of their questions.

“The way they’re presenting it is not who Elias was. He was a good man,” she said.

Police Chief Danny Smyth posted on the online platform Substack four days after Whitehead’s death.

“The officers were informed that a male had jumped in front of (a woman’s) vehicle and started punching her window and attempted to enter her vehicle. She indicated there was blood on her vehicle. Police were also called by a second caller who was concerned about the male in traffic.”

Smyth said the man was combative and acting erratically and “there was a struggle as officers used force to restrain and control the male.”

He wrote he is confident the officers involved were well trained, and will account for the actions they took.

In an interview Thursday, Smyth said officers attend hundreds of thousands of calls each year where they interact with community members with about less than half of one per cent involving use of force.

Whenever the topic of use of force comes up, some perspective is required, said Smyth.

“The context of that video was very short, and doesn’t tell the whole story. I don’t think we can draw conclusions based on a short snippet or a short clip of a video.”

Smyth acknowledges the pain the family is going through, and would be open to meeting with them later.

“I think they would be frustrated with meeting with me or anyone from the police right now, because they will have a lot of questions and I don’t have a lot of answers.”

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs sent a letter to Smyth and Mayor Scott Gillingham on Oct. 24 asking for an in-person meeting and calling for the advocacy group to be notified when a First Nations person dies in police custody.

Smyth said when the Independent Investigation Unit is involved, it is up to them to notify families.

In an e-mail, Colin Fast, director of communications for the mayor, said under provincial legislation city council has no authority to direct operations of the police service or the police watchdog, but the mayor is open to meeting with the assembly.

Webequie Chief Cornelius Wabasse said the community is still dealing with the trauma.

“Hopefully, as we move forward, we see some results and some answers.”

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