'It hasn't been a great year': Jim Watson talks 2016 police issues in Ottawa

From the death of Abdirahman Abdi to a near-record homicide rate, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson sits down with the CBC's Lucy van Oldenbarneveld for a look back at a troubling 2016.

Mayor sits down with CBC Ottawa for year-end interview

Mayor Jim Watson takes part in a year-end interview with CBC Ottawa's Lucy van Oldenbarneveld. (CBC)

As Jim Watson puts it, when it came to Ottawa police matters in 2016, the year could have been better.

The mayor sat down with the CBC's Lucy van Oldenbarneveld for a look back at the past 12 months — a year that included the death of Abdirahman Abdi during a violent July arrest, racist comments from an Ottawa Police Service officer after the death of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook, an ongoing scandal over fake traffic warning tickets, and a near-record homicide rate.

Despite that litany of incidents, Watson remains confident in the city's police force. Here's part of that year-end interview.

How would you characterize the state of the police right now?

Well, there's no question, when you add all of those things up, it hasn't been a great year for the police service. But I think the police service continues to do a great job in our community.

You know, statistically, we're still one of the safest cities. But I've always said that if you have a shooting on your street, or if someone's been stabbed in your neighbourhood, statistics don't amount to a hill of beans. If you don't feel safe, then stats aren't going to help you feel safe. That's one of the reasons why, in our budget in December, that we approved 25 new police officers [for 2017, plus] another 25 in 2018. And we hired 25 this year. 

An Ottawa police cruiser is parked outside a home on McCarthy Road where sisters Nasiba and Asma A-Noor were found dead on Dec. 16, 2016 — the city's 23rd and 24th homicides of the year. (CBC)

There were a number of councilors who expressed concerns about the police budget, which includes a reduction in community policing. Will this model work to reduce crime?

With all due respect to my colleagues, and myself included, we're not experts in policing. We have to rely on our chief and his executive command team to bring forward recommendations. And the chief has assured us that the 25, and 25, and 25 officers — 75 officers this term of council — will be sufficient to deal with the challenges facing a growing city.

The killing of Abdirahman Abdi was a very difficult time for the city. Some feel your voice was needed, and you were a bit detached. Would you have handled that differently?

As you know, I was out of town on holidays. And what my philosophy is — I'm not going to go and make a pronouncement until I speak with a member of the family. And it took a day-and-a-half to connect me with a family member. And within a few hours after I spoke with the family member, I released a statement.

I was asked by the family to go to the funeral and speak at it, because I normally would not barge into a funeral of someone I've never met before. But at the request of the family, and in sympathy to the family, I and other elected officials were asked to go to the mosque. Which I did. And I spoke, and I offered my condolences.

Unless you were a witness, it's hard to speculate. So I'm going to wait for the SIU to do their work.- Mayor Jim Watson

But I've remained relatively silent because there is a police investigation. We don't know what the cause of Mr. Abdi's death is. Many people, through Twitter, have said, you know, "He was murdered!" or "The police killed him!" We just don't know. Unless you were a witness, it's hard to speculate.

So I want to wait for the SIU to do their work, and in the interim I've been meeting with members of the Somali community on a number of occasions. We have an action plan on what we can do to help improve relations between police and the Somali community, [to] improve employment opportunities. There's discussion that maybe we should work together to have a Somali festival — just as we have a Greek festival or an Italian festival — and showcase Somali art and cuisine and entrepreneurship. And I'm looking forward to working with the community over the course of the next year.

A group holding a "Justice for Abdirahman Abdi" banner leads hundreds on a march from Somerset Park Square to the Ottawa police headquarters on Elgin Street on July 30, 2016. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

There were a number of exchanges you had this year with activists over Twitter, where they really came out hard and criticized you. Did that get under your skin?

What was disturbing was [it was] mostly people from Toronto who were telling their followers on social media that the police murdered this gentleman. And I think my job is to remain impartial and fair, but also defend our employees — namely, our police service.

I don't know what the circumstances are, and when someone comes and says something that's patently unprovable and untrue at this point, then I think I should push back. Otherwise our police and their reputation is sullied.

So you don't think race played a role? 

I have no idea. I believe in the concept of innocence until proven guilty. I don't know what the circumstances are, I don't know about the groping of women, I don't know what happened with respect to whether there was a health related issue, or whether the police were involved. It's unfair for me as an observer — particularly as mayor — or for any member of the public to simply say "They're guilty!" and be judge and jury without actually knowing all the facts.