Watchdog to probe complaint against Hanover police chief, constable over Adam Brunt's drowning death

An independent police watchdog says it will investigate a complaint against a police chief and a constable in Hanover, Ont., following the drowning death of firefighting student in 2015 during a private training exercise on the Saugeen River.

Adam Brunt, 30, an aspiring firefighter, died after a training exercise in icy water in 2015

Adam Brunt, 30, a Durham College student, died on Feb. 8, 2015 while taking a private safety training course run by a Newmarket, Ont. firm. He was trapped under the ice for 15 minutes when his survival suit got caught on a piece of metal under the water. (Provided by Brunt's family)

An independent police watchdog says it will investigate a complaint against a police chief and a constable in Hanover, Ont., following the drowning death of firefighting student in 2015 during a private training exercise on the Saugeen River.

Adam Brunt, 30, a Durham College student, died on Feb. 8, 2015. He was taking a safety course run by a Newmarket, Ont., firm. He was trapped under the ice for 15 minutes when his survival suit got caught on a piece of metal under the water.

In a Feb. 15 letter to Terri-Jo Thompson — one of five others in the river with Brunt — the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) says it has determined her complaint is one of "conduct" involving Hanover Police Chief Christopher Knoll and Const. Jeremy Ellis. Hanover, a town, is about 50 km southwest of Owen Sound.

Thompson, who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after the death, said she was one of 12 firefighting trainees in the river with Adam.

"Adam was ahead of me going down the river and he was my teammate. We all worked so hard to rescue him that day. His death was completely preventable and needless," Thompson said in an email to CBC Toronto. 
Terri-Jo Thompson, one of 12 firefighting trainees in the river with Adam Brunt when he died, has filed a complaint with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director against the Hanover police chief and a constable. (CBC)

Following Brunt's death, the Hanover Police Service carried out an investigation but no charges were laid. Knoll was the lead officer on the case and Ellis acted under his direction. 

Thompson said she is alleging misconduct, discreditable conduct, neglect of duty and potentially criminal offences of breach of public trust and obstructing justice.

In September 2015, the police chief dismissed the prospect of criminal charges because investigators believed there were "no reasonable grounds" to lay charges. 

Thompson, as a civilian, pursued a charge against Terry Harrison, owner of Herschel Rescue Training Systems and the trainer who was teaching the course that Brunt took. He was not charged by the police. 

She used a private prosecution process, made her case in front of a justice of the peace in Walkerton, Ont., and as a result, Harrison has been charged with criminal negligence causing death. 

​In Ontario, citizens who believe a crime has been committed are given the opportunity to argue that in front of a judge or justice of the peace. 
'She's family' said Christy Brunt, far right, of Terri-Jo Thompson, far left, after Thompson successfully pursued a private prosecution to have trainer Terry Harrison criminally charged for the death of Adam Brunt, pictured in photo. (Makda Ghebreslassie )

Thompson said she launched the complaint because she believes police mishandled the case.

"It is my belief the police investigation into Adam's death was not fulsome, transparent, competent and objective.  I believe any death investigation deserves these components," she said.

"I feel a proper investigation into the conduct of Hanover Police Chief Knoll and Hanover Police Constable Ellis is the only way to be certain Adam Brunt's death was investigated in this way. I am hopeful any misconduct is investigated and dealt with appropriately by the OIPRD. 

"In light of the freshly laid criminal charge against the trainer, Terry Harrison, and my complaint to the OIPRD moving on to the next step, I am hopeful the investigation into Adam Brunt's death is reopened and continues moving forwards."  

Complaint to be split into 2 files

The OIPRD says the complaint will be split into two files, with the complaint about the police chief to be forwarded to the Hanover Police Services Board for consideration. It says the Police Services Act dictates that complaint be handled in this way. 

For its part, the police service board will review the complaint to determine whether the police chief broke the law, performed his work unsatisfactorily or engaged in misconduct.

The OIPRD says the police services board could ask the OIPRD to investigate the complaint or decide that no action should be taken. If it takes no action, the OIPRD says the police services board will provide a report with reasons for doing so. 

Meanwhile, the complaint against the constable will be dealt with separately.

Thompson said she is concerned that the police services board may not be objective or transparent, given that it was responsible for the hiring of Knoll as police chief. But she said she is hopeful that the complaint, if substantiated, could be referred back to the OIPRD. 
Risky ice rescue courses that send firefighting students into treacherous, fast-moving currents should be put on hold until they can be performed safely, a coroner's inquest recommended. (Beth Van Zandt/Associated Press)

Thompson has also submitted formal complaints with the Ontario Civilian Police Commission and the Director of Crown Operations-West Region over the Hanover police and Crown attorney's handling of Brunt's case.

Harrison was expected to make his first appearance in court on Jan. 24, 2018 in Walkerton.

A coroner's inquest was held in May 2017 into the deaths of Brunt and Gary Kendall, 51, a volunteer firefighter from the village of Point Edward, near to Sarnia, Ont., who died on Jan. 31, 2010 during a training exercise.

Brunt and Kendall both died while taking training from the same company. The jury in the inquest made 15 recommendations, including that risky ice rescue courses that send firefighters and firefighting students into treacherous, fast-moving currents should be put on hold until they can be performed safely.

The OIPRD, an independent civilian oversight agency, receives, manages and oversees all complaints about police in Ontario.