London

London, Ont., police officer guilty in death of First Nations woman

A London, Ont. judge has found a police officer guilty of criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessaries of life in the death of a First Nations woman who died shortly after being arrested in 2016.

Debra Chrisjohn died Sept. 7, 2016, shortly after being arrested by London police

Friends and family of Debra Chrisjohn hug outside of court on Friday after a police officer was found guilty in her death. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

A London, Ont., judge has found a police officer guilty in the death of a First Nations woman who died shortly after being arrested. 

London police Const. Nicholas Doering was found guilty of criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessaries of life to Debra Chrisjohn, 39, of Oneida of the Thames First Nation. 

Chrisjohn was high on meth when Doering arrested her on Sept. 7, 2016, after being called for a report of a woman running in the middle of the street and trying to get into cars. Chrisjohn was also wanted on an outstanding Ontario Provincial Police warrant for breaching the terms of a release from custody. 

"Const. Doering was focused on getting Ms. Chrisjohn to the OPP," Justice Renee Pomerance told a crowded courtroom. "It seems that he was far less concerned, if he was concerned at all, with her medical condition."

In issuing her verdict, Pomerance delivered an indictment of how Doering's assumptions about Chrisjohn and stereotypes about people who use drugs coloured the lens through which he responded to the mother of 11. 

Brittany and Cindy Chrisjohn are the sisters of Debra Chrisjohn. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

"The evidence in this case suggests that stereotypes and generalized assumptions played a role in the events leading to Ms. Chrisjohn's death," Pomerance told the courtroom. 

"Const. Doering had definite opinions about how persons on drug, and persons addicted to drugs, were likely to behave."

The courtroom was packed with about 30 London police officers present to support Doering. Just as many people were there to support the Chrisjohn family. 

"I miss my sister a lot. It's been hard," said her sister, Cindy Chrisjohn, after the verdict. 

'Just needed to ride it out'

When Doering was called to deal with Chrisjohn, he was told by dispatchers that officers had dealt with her the day before and had concluded she was high on methamphetamine.

But when a paramedic came to the scene on Sept. 7, 2016, Doering didn't ask for a medical assessment. The paramedic told Doering that Chrisjohn's vital signs would likely be "out of wack" because of her drug use and Doering would have to spend hours waiting with her in the hospital emergency department. 

On the drive to drop off Doering at a rural intersection outside London, where he agreed to meet OPP officers to transfer her to their custody, Chrisjohn's condition deteriorated. 

Debra Chrisjohn died in September 2016, shortly after being arrested. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Three times, she slumped in her seat, and he told her to sit up, which she did. At one point, Chrisjohn said something to Doering, but he couldn't hear her because the window was open, and he didn't ask her to repeat what she wanted. Once, he pulled over to make sure she hadn't slipped out of her handcuffs. 

"If Ms. Chrisjohn was aggressive, it was because she was high on methamphetamine. If she was silent and apparently non-compliant, it was because she was high on methamphetamine," Pomerance said. "If she was lying on the seat, moaning and shaking, she was just riding out her high. It is not clear what, if any, observations would have prompted Const. Doering to call EMS." 

By the time they arrived at the parking lot where custody would be transferred to provincial police, Chrisjohn was lying down in the back seat, unable to answer questions. 

Doering told the OPP officers that paramedics had checked Chrisjohn out and that her condition had been the same throughout her detention. Both statements were false, Pomerance said, and "created the risk that the OPP would not appreciate the gravity of Ms. Chrisjohn's condition, and that medical assistance would be even further delayed." 

Chrisjohn's condition further deteriorated in OPP custody. They called paramedics and she was taken to hospital, where she died. 

Deoring will be sentenced at a later date. 

About the Author

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.