911 call summoning Ottawa police to wrong address leaves mother, 4 kids shaken
OPS responded to wrong address for a mental wellness check
An Ottawa family's interaction with police after a 911 call that mistakenly brought officers to their home is once again raising questions about officers' involvement in wellness checks and the way they enter private homes.
Around 5:45 a.m. ET on Wednesday, city police responded to a call about a potentially suicidal man.
The call was about a man "threatening self-harm," but the female caller gave the wrong address, say police.
They narrowed down the call's location to within 25 metres and entered a home on Montgomery Street in the city's Vanier neighbourhood, but it was the wrong house.
In their search for the distressed man, Nadia Ngoto said police walked into her home without permission.
"I didn't hear them announce themselves," said Ngoto, 38. "I have four children and one roommate, and not one person heard police announce themselves."
She said police first walked to the back of the house, and knocked on her 11-year-old son Armaan's bedroom window with their flashlights and startled him awake.
"I was scared because I don't have the best experience with officers and I didn't really know what was going on and everybody in my house was asleep, so I was pretty terrified," said Armaan, who said he saw three officers by his window.
He said he wanted to leave the room to get his older brother, but was told not to move. The officer asked about the address of the home and its layout, Armaan said, but he couldn't remember the address because the family had just moved in two months earlier.
CBC News asked Ottawa police if waking up the child was considered "announcing their presence."
"Front-line officers attended this home and spoke to a young resident through a window," the Ottawa Police Service said in an email. "Simultaneously, other frontline officers entered through the unlocked front door, announcing themselves before and during their entry."
WATCH | Police under scrutiny for no-knock raids:
Around the same time Armaan was being questioned, Ngoto's oldest son, Ozzy, was awakened by heavy footsteps walking across wooden floors. He could see the flashlights shining through the cracks of his bedroom door.
"I proceeded with caution and opened my door," said Ozzy. "I saw this tall figure ... and he turns around, and he has this huge-ass gun in his hand and starts asking me all these types of questions about someone named Carlos who I didn't know."
He said a flashlight was shone in his face and he could see what looked like a long gun at the officer's hip level.
"You don't expect to see armed men in your home. I assumed it was an accidental call [that] someone tipped them off about a drug charge and they got the wrong address."
Ozzy says he was even more disturbed when officers told him they were there for a suicide wellness check.
"That threw me off even more. That doesn't seem to de-escalate things," said Ozzy. He estimates there were at least 10 officers in his home.
Ozzy says police said "sorry" as they exited after realizing they had the wrong house, but before they left officers did a "sweep" of the house and barged into the upstairs bedroom of a 70 year-old family friend. Ozzy estimates they were in the home for about 15 minutes.
Questioning police wellness checks
A CBC analysis of deadly police encounters show that the majority of the victims suffer from mental illness or substance abuse. Black and Indigenous people are also disproportionately killed in police encounters.
They told my son "Don't move" ... Would he have gotten shot for not listening to instructions?- Nadia Ngoto, mother
Kevin Walby, a criminologist at the University of Winnipeg, said past fatalities show why police should not be engaged in mental health calls. He said resources should instead be put into solutions that turn health workers and community advocates into first responders to these types of calls.
"If we reimagine the way we respond to distress, re-imagine the way we respond to transgression so that so we're not defaulting to policing all the time, but instead empower these community groups that have so much passion to keep people safe — then I think we would be in a situation where people don't have to worry about getting killed by police," he said.
Walby finds it particularly galling that the incident at the Ngoto family home occurred just two days after Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly announced a temporary ban on "dynamic entries" involving searches for disposable evidence, such as drugs. The force has come under fire for several cases of misconduct related to no-knock raids revealed by the The Fifth Estate.
He wonders if there is a disconnect between the police executive and the rank and file.
Walby said judges have ruled that a police announcement of entry has to be "loud and clear … and have some duration. And it doesn't seem like any of that was there [in this case]."
Despite Ozzy Ngoto's account of seeing officers with long guns, Ottawa police say this was a wellness check and not a dynamic entry. The force says its tactical officers did not enter the home, although they were called in later to support the search for the potentially suicidal man.
Police didn't find the distressed man that night, but Nadia Ngoto said her family has been retraumatized.
For several years, the Congolese-Canadian lived in shelters with her children after fleeing domestic violence. Ngoto and her four sons have had negative experiences with police involving racial profiling, she said.
"If any of us made the wrong move, we would have been the ones in trouble or dead.
"They told my 11-year-old son, 'Don't move, don't move.' So what if he turned his back and left his room? Would he have gotten shot for not listening to police instructions? Those are questions I don't want to know. It's a nightmare."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.