'Everyone loses': Questions remain after charges laid in Abdirahman Abdi's death

Questions linger about the role of race and mental illness in the death of an Ottawa man during a violent confrontation with police, even after the officer has been charged with manslaughter.

'The questions remain: Why? And how could that have happened? ... Communities are still waiting for answers'

Abdirahman Abdi, 37, was a Somali-Canadian with mental health issues, whose family moved to Canada eight years ago. He was pronounced dead Monday afternoon after losing vital signs during a confrontation with police on Sunday morning. (Abdi family)

The investigation into the death of Abdirahman Abdi during a violent confrontation with Ottawa police has strained local relations with law enforcement — and even though charges have now been laid, many in the city are still searching for answers.

Ketcia Peters, co-chair of the Community and Police Action Committee (COMPAC), said Monday's announcement that Ontario's police watchdog had concluded its investigation and charged Ottawa Police Service Const. Daniel Montsion in Abdi's death might lead to some closure.

"The community, absolutely, wanted to have some type of resolution right away and it's been a struggle for me to educate the community about the process," Peters told CBC News.​

Abdi, a 37-year-old Somali-Canadian man with as yet unspecified mental health issues, lost vital signs during a confrontation with Ottawa police constables Montsion and Dave Weir on Sunday, July 24, 2016.

He was pronounced dead in hospital the following afternoon.

On Monday, the province's Special Investigations Unit (SIU) charged Montsion with manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon.

The SIU investigates cases of death, serious injury or sexual assault involving police in Ontario. Weir was initially being investigated by the SIU, but was later deemed to have been a witness officer only.

Ottawa police Const. Daniel Montsion is facing a charge of manslaughter in the July 2016 death of Abdirahman Abdi. (Still from YouTube video)

'Everyone loses'

Peters said people whom she's spoken to in Ottawa's black and Muslim communities have said Abdi's death raised difficult questions about racial profiling by police.

"The community felt that if Abdirahman was from a different race or from a different community ... the way the police officers could have handled the situation would have been completely different," she said.

"When a situation like this occurs, everyone loses. Abdirahman is not going to come back. So it's not a win for the family. It's not a win for the Ottawa Police Service neither, because now one of their officers is actually probably going to be affected by this."

Ketcia Peters is co-chair of the Community and Police Action Committee, or COMPAC, which tries to resolve community policing problems. (CBC)

After Abdi's death, COMPAC organized two community meetings so people could ask questions about the SIU investigation process and air their concerns about relations with police. 

Peters said one of the main concerns is the lack of transparency around how the SIU determines whether or not to lay charges, and what information they gather about incidents involving the police.

Questions remain

Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, maintains Abdi's race and mental health condition were not factors in how police responded to him.

"Race has no play in this whatsoever. Obviously, the discussion about mental illness has come up in this several times," Skof said, adding that public safety is the priority on any call.

"Mental illness is something that we're obviously trained for to deal with. Everyone can always argue that we can use more training, and I don't dispute that."

Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, said concerns about whether race or mental illness influenced police decisions in the Abdi case are a 'distraction.' (CBC)

Amira Elghawaby, spokesperson for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said it was too early to determine whether or not race was factor.

"We will learn more and more, but to rule out race as having been a factor at this stage, I think, is really irresponsible," she said. 

"The questions remain: Why? And how could that have happened? All those various issues of race, of mental health will have to be explored. Communities are still waiting for answers and they're still looking for those answers as we go forward."

Abdi's death sparked multiple protests in Ottawa, as well as in Toronto and Montreal.

Community 'deeply affected'

In a statement, Yasir Naqvi, Ontario's Attorney General, said his "deepest condolences" were with Abdi's family and friends, the residents of the Hilda Street apartment where he lived, and Ottawa's Somali-Canadian community. 

"His death was a sorrow that no family should ever have to experience, and I know that the community continues to be deeply affected," said Naqvi, also the MPP for Ottawa Centre.

Naqvi also acknowledged the "professionalism" shown by the SIU during its investigation.

Coun. Jeff Leiper, who participated in a memorial for Abdi last summer, said in an email he's glad the investigation is over and noted the matter is now before the courts.

Mayor Jim Watson's office said it wouldn't be appropriate for him to comment on a matter before the courts.