External investigation ordered after Waterloo regional police arrest video surfaces

An external police service will be asked to investigate after a video of an arrest in Waterloo region surfaced online recently.

Video 'raises questions and concerns,' Waterloo Regional Police Service Chief Bryan Larkin says

Waterloo Regional Police Service are investigating after a video of a recent arrest was shared on Twitter by the ACB Network of Waterloo Region, a group that works to reduce "social, political and economic barriers for people of African, Caribbean, and Black descent." ( ACB Network of Waterloo Region/Twitter)

An external police service and a use of force expert will be called in to investigate after a video of an arrest in Waterloo region surfaced online recently.

Waterloo Regional Police Service Chief Bryan Larkin says the video was tied to an arrest that happened at 1 a.m. Sunday.

He said two officers stopped a suspect over issues with the vehicle's headlights.

He said the officers then went to a nearby community centre parking lot to debrief the traffic stop, when the suspect's car pulled up.

The officers heard a popping sound, now believed to be fireworks, and mistook it for gunshots, Larkin said. Then, other officers who were called to the scene believed the suspect's car was trying to swerve toward them, he said.

Police then located the suspect at a nearby gas station parking lot and took him out of the car. 

"There was physical control, including what appears to be the officer punching the suspect," Larkin told CBC News. 

He said a Taser was also used twice during the arrest. The man was taken to hospital for a wellness check, but the injuries were not severe enough to warrant an investigation by the province's police watchdog, Larkin said during a police services board meeting Wednesday.

The man was later charged with dangerous driving.

The interaction was caught on tape and is now circulating online, he said.

"We take this very seriously, but want to recognize that the officers … they actually feared for their life," Larkin told CBC News. "This was a very dynamic, complex situation."

'We feel he was used as an example'

Faduma Musse, president of the Somali Canadian Association of Waterloo Region, told CBC News she briefly spoke with the man, who is Somali-Canadian, on Tuesday.

Musse said the gas station where the arrest took place is near a Tim Hortons where the man often met up with friends in the Somali community. Musse said she's spoken with some of the young men who witnessed the arrest and is concerned about the message the incident sends.

"We feel like he was used as an example, because [police] knew he had mental health issues," said Musse, who said the man had interacted with police before. 

"If this was a white, Anglo-Saxon person with mental health issues, and they were privy to that information, they would have stood there for nine hours to de-escalate the situation. They would have never abruptly gone after him the way they did with this person."

Police do have a partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association that sends crisis workers to mental health calls, but it does not run overnight, Larkin said. The complexity of a call, and whether officers believe a weapon is present, would also affect whether dispatch sent crisis workers, police or a combination of the two, he said.

Larkin emphasized during the meeting Wednesday that he does not believe police should be the primary line of contact for mental health related emergencies. 

CBC News asked police if race played a role in the handling of the arrest. A spokesperson said the service could not comment until the external review is complete. 

Investigations underway

Larkin said police are in the process of identifying the police service that will take on the external investigation. An expert on use of force will also be brought in to investigate, Larkin told reporters during a police services board meeting Wednesday.

"This is around building trust, it's around ensuring our community has confidence in policing," said Larkin. 

As with all use of force incidents, Larkin said the arrest will also be the subject of multiple internal investigations. The results will be presented at a future police services board meeting, he said.

"For many of us watching this [video], it raises questions and concerns, and that's what investigations and external reviews are all about is to actually get all the answers," Larkin said.

Musse told CBC News she also has concerns about the explanation that officers had mistaken fireworks for gunshots.

"As trained professionals, how come they don't know the difference between a gunshot and fireworks?" said Musse. 

Larkin said police often receive calls from members of the public mistaking the two sounds. He said that aspect of the situation will also be part of the review.

Last year, Waterloo regional police were involved in a total of 253 use of force incidents, or roughly one in every 69 arrests.

That number was up from 199 such incidents in 2018, but in line with previous years' reporting, according to a report that went before the police services board in February. The report noted that police have taken ongoing de-escalation training in recent years. 

NDP MPP calls for change

On Tuesday, Kitchener Centre MPP Laura Mae Lindo, who chairs the Ontario NDP Black Caucus, called for police to suspend the officer involved and to initiate an independent investigation into the matter.

As of Tuesday, the officer involved had not been placed on leave, Larkin confirmed.

In the wake of widespread protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality, Lindo said it's been difficult for local Black and Indigenous communities to watch violent arrests caught on video.

"We're hearing that everybody wants to do better, we're hearing that everybody is prepared to stand in solidarity with us, as we fight for a system that really does keep us safe, a system we can trust, and then another video comes out," said Lindo. "It's actually quite heartbreaking."

In the meantime, Musse called for heightened transparency on the part of police as the investigations go forward. She also wants police to acknowledge how the arrest has affected the local Somali community.

"They need to address the Somali-Canadian community and the Waterloo region community as a whole, explaining that ... they understand the frustration, the sadness, the anger that people would feel from seeing this video."

Larkin said he has reached out to a member of the local Somali community about providing support to the man, who is currently in police custody. He said he is committed to building relationships with the community, although some specific initiatives have been delayed due to the pandemic. 

"If there is a reality or perception that trust has been lost, my personal commitment as the chief is to continue to rebuild that and to continue to engage our community," he said.