Ottawa

'That could have been me'

That's what both police and members of Ottawa's black community are saying as the trial of Const. Daniel Montsion, charged with manslaughter in the death of Abdirahman Abdi, begins.

That's what both police and Ottawa's black community are saying as the trial of Const. Daniel Montsion begins

Abdirahman Abdi, left, died after an altercation with police outside his Hintonburg apartment building in 2016. Const. Daniel Montsion, right, is on trial for manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon in Abdi's death. (Supplied)

Both Ottawa's black community and its police force are bracing for a trial that could further test their already fragile relationship as the officer charged in the death of Abdirahman Abdi gets his day in court.

Const. Daniel Montsion is charged with manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon in the death of Abdi, who had an undisclosed mental illness.

His trial is expected to begin today.

I think people are anxious both inside and outside the service.- Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau

Abdi lost vital signs during a violent altercation with police outside the entrance to his Hintonburg apartment building on July 24, 2016. He was 37.

He was officially pronounced dead in hospital the following day.

Ontario's Special Investigations Unit later laid criminal charges against Montsion, one of several officers at the scene that day.

Fear, outrage

Abdi's death, and the fear and outrage that followed, reverberated through Ottawa's Somali and black communities, but it's had a profound effect on police as well.

While both sides say they've worked toward reconciliation over the past three years, the lead-up to Montsion's trial seems to have everyone involved saying, "That could have been me."

Candles glow at the memorial for Abdirahman Abdi shortly after his death in July 2016. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

"I think people are anxious both inside and outside the service," said Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau last week.

"We have a fellow officer that's charged with a fairly serious crime, and he's going through some difficult circumstances. And on the community side, we've had a member of the community lost, so it's impacting on many, many people in our community."

'No real change'

The Justice for Abdirahman coalition wants someone to take responsibility for what happened to Abdi, and says this trial may represent the last chance.

The group, formed in the days after Abdi's death, has advocated for a host of policy changes to improve racial equality in Ottawa.

Justice, the group's members say, can look like many things — but they haven't seen it yet.

"There's no real changes that we can see and feel and that are tangible." said spokesperson Dahabo Ahmed-Omer.

In the years since Abdi's death, Ottawa police have formed an outreach group to connect with the city's Somalis, reformed its community-based advisory committee, reduced the number of street checks officers perform, and taken steps toward diversifying the force and its leadership.

But none of those initiatives has made people in the community feel safer when it comes to their interactions with police, Ahmed-Omer said.

Now, three years after Abdi's death, she said the relationship between police and her community is at a breaking point.

"We need to be able to see that our police service and its members are taking responsibility for what happened to Abdirahman Abdi. And if that doesn't happen, there's no way back."

Dahabo Ahmed-Omer, a spokesperson for Justice for Abdirahman, stands in the doorway of the building where Abdirahman Abdi was beaten, now marked with messages of support. (Laura Osman/CBC)

'Why should we get involved?'

As police officers see it, the stakes are equally high as Montsion's trial begins.

"When you see a fellow officer on trial ... what goes through the mind is, it could have been me," said Anthony Constantini, a retired sergeant who left the Ottawa Police Service last year after a 32-year career.

Police officers are trained to react to dangerous situations appropriately, but circumstances can change in an instant. The threat of jail time hanging over an officer's head if something goes wrong is, at best, demoralizing, Constantini said.

At worst, it can leave officers second-guessing themselves in dangerous situations.

Anthony Constantini spent 32 years with the Ottawa Police Service before retiring in 2018. (Laura Osman/CBC)

"Why should we get involved in incidents where we're gonna be looked at as basically almost criminal?" he asked. "It almost criminalizes the part of the job that the police officers have to do."

With those doubts weighing on their minds, officers could be less inclined to get involved in certain situations, said Canadian Police Association president Tom Stamatakis.

"In the worst-case scenario, police officers just stop being proactive and respond to incidents only when required," 

The Ottawa Police Association declined to speak with CBC before the trial.

The ultimate goal

While the coming weeks will be difficult, the community, including its police force, must not lose sight of the ultimate goal, said Ketcia Peters, former co-chair of Ottawa's police equity council. 

That position gave her a unique perspective, she said, but she remains conflicted as Montsion's trial approaches.

Peters taught her son to call 911 if he needs help. But as a black mother, she lacks confidence that the officer who answers the call won't also pose a threat.

Ketcia Peters is the former co-chair of the Ottawa Police Community Equity Council. (CBC)

Peters said Ottawa needs to arrive at the point where that fear is erased, and she believes the city is closer now than it was the day Abdi died.

"I feel that although it was a high price to pay, I think that it has changed Ottawa for the better," she said.

Monstion's trial is expected to last 12 weeks as a judge determines whether the officer is criminally responsible for Abdi's death.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Osman

Reporter

Laura Osman is a reporter for The Canadian Press.

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