Police Accountability: There is no right to silence
Short years before his assassination Robert Kennedy, who at the time was United States attorney general, observed, “Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on.”
At the time Kennedy was of course embroiled in the fight against organized crime and police corruption. But his words apply equally well to the city of Ottawa’s police force.
You see, there is a problem in Ottawa — our police force is embroiled in controversy: racist Facebook rants, repeated judicial findings of rights violations and the high profile beating death of Abdirahman Abdi.
The issues with Ottawa city’s police runs deeper than rogue officers and isolated incidents. Ottawa’s problems really begin in the corridors of power as our civic leaders, including Ottawa’s Mayor Jim Watson and the chief of police Charles Bordeleau, appear content to remain silent in the face of police misconduct.
Let’s start with the tragic case of Abdi. In July 2016 Ottawa police were dispatched to a local coffee shop where it was reported that a Somali man had groped a woman. When police arrived they engaged in a foot pursuit with Abdi, ultimately catching him and forcing him to the ground. What came next was caught on video – Abdi, unarmed and not resisting, was hit with police fists and batons.
Abdi never regained consciousness, his life ended in police custody, on the cold cement, in a pool of his own blood.
There was public outrage in Ottawa. But not from Watson, who remained silent for two whole days before e-mailing in a brief statement saying he was “saddened” by the events.
Shortly after Abdi’s death Bordeleau defended his officers by emphasizing that the police altercation occurred after Abdi’s allegedly “assaultive” behaviour and deflected questions by insisting “We need to let the SIU do their investigation and determine exactly what took place.”
Well, the SIU investigated and a full eight months after Abdi’s death Ottawa police constable Daniel Montsion was charged with manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon.
After the SUI investigation Bordeleau again ducked questions about the actions of his officers and his force's policies and saying that the matter was now before the courts. Bordeleau did find some time to insist that the charged officer deserved to be treated fairly and said, “Mr. Abdi’s death has also been difficult for the membership of our police service.”
Ottawa’s mayor also refused to comment.
Shortly after the SIU laid charges it was revealed that during the beating death of Abdi police constable Montsion was wearing a pair of Oakley SI Assault Gloves. The assault gloves – available on Oakley’s military and government sales website – feature a raised carbon fibre knuckle guard. In other words, as an Oakley sales representative said, “Think about it as a pair of brass knuckles on a glove.”
These are the gloves that constable Montsion was wearing when he punched a motionless Abdi in the head. The Ottawa police have no policy on the use of assault gloves, nor was there mandatory training, or any type of accountability measures. Why? Because chief Bordeleau did not consider assault gloves weapons.
At this point I’m sure you can guess how Bordeleau responded when asked about the assault gloves – yep, Bordeleau said he was “prohibited” from answering any questions because the matter was before the courts. He also refused to answer any general questions about internal policies, which officers had access to the gloves, or when the force acquired them.
Bordeleau did break his silence to clear up one misconception — despite the manufacturer's comparison to brass knuckles, a neuroscientist’s opinion about the damage the gloves could inflict and common sense — Ottawa’s police chief did not even consider the cryptically named "assault gloves" a weapon. "Let's be clear,” said Bordeleau, “gloves, boots, clothes — they're not weapons.”
Watson took a similarly supine position with respect to the operation of his city’s police force saying: "I really can't give a comment. First of all, I'm not on the police services board, secondly, the matter is before the courts, and third, any kind of operational decision is really done by the [police] chief and not by the politicians.”
Let’s be clear here — Watson’s position is both ill-informed and irresponsible.
First, provincial legislation gives Watson a right to sit on the police services board — it is his choice to forgo that right.
Second, just because a matter is before the court does not precluded comment — especially comments on general police policy or procedures — especially when the safety of the civilian population is at stake. The bottom line is that the "no comment, it's before the courts" deflection is often overused, as Lorne Sossin, dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, argued in his 2013 paper, Comment on "No Comment": The Sub Judice Rule and the Accountability of Public Officials in the 21st Century.
Third, it should be the obligation of a mayor to question his police force and speak for the citizens he represents.
But Watson’s approach in the Abdi case should have been expected — after all Watson has often defaulted to police apologism. Take for example Ottawa police Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar’s obviously racist Facebook rant about indigenous Canadians — Watson described that as merely bordering on racism.
Watson has also refused to comment on numerous egregious Charter violations by his police force.
In 2016 the Ontario Court of Appeal found that Ottawa police gratuitously inflicted pain on a man they arrested and denied him right to counsel. In another decision, released weeks later, the Court of Appeal found the Ottawa police conducted a "dangerous and unnecessary masked takedown at gunpoint" of a 43-year-old house cleaner, denied her right to counsel, held her incommunicado in a jail cell for nearly five and a half hours after her arrest and then lied to a court about it.
Ottawa’s mayor remained silent.
This month an Ottawa judge found that an Ottawa police officer pulled a young black man over for no reason, illegally searched his car, beat the man while he was cuffed, oh and the judge also disbelieved the police officer's testimony —is there a pattern here?
Ottawa’s mayor again remained silent.
The Ottawa Police Service is failing to protect the safety and security of our communities as a trusted partner in community safety. If this does not merit comment from the mayor and action from the police chief what does?
We should be asking why our high-ranking public officials are not advocates for public safety and police accountability — we get the law enforcement we insist on. After all our public leaders do not have a right to remain silent when the stakes are so high.
A version of this post first appeared on The Lawyers' Daily on April 5 2015