Bridgehead customers tried to restrain Abdirahman Abdi before fatal confrontation with police

A man who died after what witnesses described as a violent arrest had been removed from an Ottawa coffee shop and kept outside after a woman said he touched her inappropriately, according to a customer there at the time.

Customer heard others saying suspect had mental health issues, but didn't know if police were told

Abdirahman Abdi, 37, a Somali-Canadian with mental health issues, moved to Canada with his family eight years ago. He died after an arrest by police on Sunday morning. (Abdi family)

A man who died after what witnesses described as a violent arrest had been removed from an Ottawa coffee shop and kept outside after a woman said he touched her inappropriately, according to a customer there at the time.

Abdirahman Abdi, a 37-year-old Somali Canadian man with mental health issues, died Monday, a day after he was arrested outside his apartment building.

Ontario's Special Investigations Unit is investigating his death and the circumstances that led to it.

Police said they were called to the Bridgehead coffee shop at the downtown intersection of Wellington Street West and Fairmont Avenue at 9:30 a.m. after a report of a man groping a customer.

Their response led to a pursuit to 55 Hilda Street, where Abdi was detained by two officers in what some people in the area have described as a violent arrest.

'Call the police, call the police'

JM Duval said he heard several people in the coffee shop saying the man accused of groping a woman had mental health issues, but said he didn't know if that information was communicated to police. (CBC)

JM Duval was sitting in the back section of the coffee shop that morning when he said he heard a commotion at the front of the store.

Though he couldn't see what happened, he said he could hear tables moving and people very agitated.

"I heard several men saying, 'Call the police, call the police,'" Duval said. He said he saw a man he identified as Abdi run out of the coffee shop, only to try to come back in, but that several men at the front of the shop were preventing him.

While this was happening, Duval said two women took another woman from the front of the coffee shop to the back section.

Customers tried to keep suspect on site

Duval said the woman was Francophone and did not speak English very well, but when he asked her in French what happened, she told him that a man had touched her inappropriately.

"She was quite under a state of shock when that happened," Duval said. 

"She was quite shaken by the event but she was able to stay in the restaurant and finish what she ordered."

Const. Dave Weir, left, and Const. Daniel Montsion, centre, are seen kneeling by Abdirahman Abdi outside his apartment building on Hilda Street. Both officers are the subject of an SIU investigation into Abdi's death. (Still from YouTube video)
Duval said staff at the Bridgehead decided to put the restaurant in a "lockdown" mode, keeping customers and staff inside and others outside until the police arrived.

Meanwhile, outside the coffee shop, he said several men were trying to keep the man on site until police arrived.

"He was violent, he was fairly aggressive in nature, from what I could see, but I did not hear him speak anything," Duval said. "He was waving his arms trying to defend himself from the patrons who were trying to keep him at the site."

Customers talked about mental illness

Duval said inside the coffee shop he heard several patrons say the man had a history of mental illness — but he did not know if that information was communicated to police.

Duval said he did not see police arrive and did not see the interaction that led to the pursuit some 250 metres away to Hilda Street.

Customers were allowed to leave the shop shortly after police arrived, and that's when Duval left.

'More questions than answers'

Several groups, including the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, have called on the SIU to conduct a transparent investigation into Abdi's arrest and death.

OCISO executive director Leslie Emory says people in the immigrant community are waiting for answers about what happened. (CBC)
Abdi lived at 55 Hilda Street, in the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization non-profit housing apartment building, along with his family. 

OCISO executive director Leslie Emory said people need to wait for the SIU investigation before rushing to judgement. But she said people in the immigrant refugee community are concerned about what happened.

"Something has happened here and it's tragic, and it can call into question their safety and it may bring up some prior concerns or fears that they've had, and we need to support them to address those," Emory said.

"That's why we have to be very deliberate in exploring what was the scenario for him, what factors led to the incident that resulted in his death. Were there mental health issues? Disabilities? Was there racism involved? And what else?

"Right now, we have more questions than answers. And I think the community needs to work together to get the answers and support for the community to go forward," she said.

With files from Judy Trinh