'There is a crisis' within Ottawa police when dealing with race, group says

A coalition formed in response to the arrest and subsequent death of a Somali-Canadian man in Ottawa wants to see sweeping changes to how police interact with visible minorities and people with mental health issues.

Justice for Abdirahman calls for body cameras, better de-escalation training and a more transparent SIU

A coalition of social justice groups is calling on Ottawa police to acknowledge there is a "crisis" in how they deal with racialized communities. (CBC)

A coalition formed in response to the arrest and subsequent death of a Somali-Canadian man in Ottawa wants to see sweeping changes to how police interact with visible minorities and people with mental health issues, and is calling for tougher and more transparent enforcement of those changes.

The group, Justice for Abdirahman, came together after the July 24 arrest and subsequent death of Abdirahman Abdi, a 37-year-old Somali Canadian who had mental health issues.

Abdirahman Abdi, 37, was a Somali-Canadian man with mental health issues, whose family moved to Canada eight years ago. (Abdi family)
His death, now the subject of a Special Investigations Unit probe, sparked outrage in the Somali community and with social justice groups across Canada.

"Why is it when a racialized person is experiencing a mental health crisis and the police are called, the officers' response is to kill?" said Margaret Parsons, the executive director of the African Legal Clinic and one of the members of the group who spoke at Ottawa City Hall Thursday.

"The answer is clear: in Mr. Abdi's case as in the others, the real factor was race."

Body cameras, better de-escalation training sought

The group laid out 10 recommendations aimed at all three levels of government, the Ottawa Police Service and its board, as well as police oversight agencies like the SIU and the Office of the Independent Police Review Director.

The group recommends the agencies and organizations "acknowledge that there is a crisis within the Ottawa Police Service when it comes to how authorities interact with racialized communities and specifically, those with mental health issues," and strike a task force to examine the crisis.

The group wants to see better Canada-wide police training when interacting with people with mental illnesses. That includes using recent recommendations from an Ontario Ombudsman report titled "A Matter of Life and Death," which calls for training in de-escalation.

They also want police to be required to wear body cameras and have cameras on their vehicles and have police under investigation to be reassigned and kept away from community members.

Legislation should also be amended to make the SIU more transparent, with reports available to the public, and police and Statistics Canada should collect and report race-based data on police encounters with civilians, the group says.

Last weekend, a protest march was held for Abdirahman Abdi where similar messages were expressed. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Inquests should be reviewed

The group also doesn't want to see work previously done by other organizations lost. 

It wants a task force to review all coroner's inquest recommendations made since 2001. Also, it wants the government to respond to the assertion of the Ontario Human Rights Commission that there is "no effective mechanisms to hold police accountable to systemic discrimination," and to remedy this gap.

Other members of the group included spokesman Kamal Hakim, Ikram Warsame with The Canadian Association of Somali Lawyers, Yamikani Msosa, co-ordinator with the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Ottawa, and David Onyalo, the director of anti-racism and human rights with the Canadian Labour Congress.

Police were called to Ottawa's Hintonburg neighbourhood on July 24 after reports of a man groping a customer at a coffee shop, and chased Abdi to the doorstep of his apartment building on Hilda Street.

Abdi was taken to hospital without vital signs after what witnesses described as a violent arrest, one where he was pepper sprayed and repeatedly punched and struck with a baton.

The SIU is investigating two officers, Const. Dave Weir and Const. Daniel Montsion.