Deadly weapon? Ottawa police assault gloves scrutinized after officer charged in death
Abdirahman Abdi, 37, lost vital signs during confrontation with Ottawa police in July 2016
Questions are being raised about reinforced gloves used by Ottawa police following the death of a man last year, and CBC News has learned that an internal police audit of all gloves issued to officers is underway.
Const. Daniel Montsion is facing charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon, which were laid last week by Ontario's police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit.
- Ottawa police officer charged with manslaughter in man's 2016 death
- Timeline: Abdirahman Abdi's fatal encounter with Ottawa police
On July 24, Abdirahman Abdi lost vital signs during a confrontation with Montsion and another officer as they attempted to arrest him for allegedly groping people inside a coffee shop. Abdi, who had as yet unspecified mental health issues, was eventually restrained and handcuffed just outside the entrance to his apartment building nearby.
"When Abdi is lying on the ground, face down and still, the constable who's been charged punches him in the head very violently, twice, and we never see Abdi move again," said Heather Badenoch, one of the few people who have seen an unreleased surveillance video depicting the confrontation.
"When we were watching the video … and then those two punches, we gasped, because it was so disproportionate to what was needed. Nothing was needed at that point. He was on the ground, he was face down, he wasn't moving.… [It] didn't make any sense, the level of violence that we saw."
Abdi was pronounced dead in hospital the following day.
Cellphone video footage of Montsion crouched beside an unconscious Abdi just minutes after the confrontation shows Montsion wearing what looks to be a set of Oakley Standard Issue "assault gloves," with the Oakley insignia clearly visible.
A source familiar with the case said Montsion was wearing that brand of gloves during the arrest.
A police source close to the investigation said the gloves are central to Montsion's assault with a weapon charge. Montsion's release conditions state he's prohibited from possessing weapons, and also prohibited from possessing "any gloves with hardened knuckle plating."
'Think about it as a pair of brass knuckles'
The assault gloves, manufactured by Oakley Standard Issue, are available for purchase on the company's publicly accessible military and government sales website.
They feature a thick piece of carbon fibre over the knuckles, among other modifications.
"They're going to be mainly used in live-action combat for active military members, as well as on-duty police officers should they need to make a break-in to a window or anything that would involve glass," said an Oakley Standard Issue sales representative who identified herself as Sarah P.
"Think about it as a pair of brass knuckles on a glove. Obviously it's a little bit of a different material, but it's still going to have the same kind of effectiveness just because of the thick piece of carbon fibre in there."
Internal audit of all gloves underway
Ottawa police CFO Jeff Letourneau sent a letter to Ottawa police inspectors Monday afternoon, advising them that police Chief Charles Bordeleau wants an audit of all gloves issued to officers for on-duty use.
The letter, obtained by CBC News, states that the force's quartermaster has already documented all gloves issued through it, but that "several sections" within the force have purchased gloves "directly without going through [the quartermaster].
"I am asking each of you to review your respective directorates and document any gloves purchased directly by sections within your chain of command," the letter reads.
The deadline is Wednesday, March 22.
Bordeleau has refused to comment on this story, saying the matter is now before the courts.
"The questions you are asking relate directly to an ongoing SIU investigation and the matter is presently before the criminal courts. Therefore, we are prohibited from answering the questions asked," Bordeleau wrote in an emailed statement.
Some units issued reinforced gloves
Some Ottawa police officers get reinforced gloves, according to spokesperson Const. Marc Soucy.
"Some units have them issued to them, and some don't," Soucy said.
According to a police source, Montsion was issued the gloves in his role as a member of the direct action response team, or DART, which monitors street gang activity for the guns and gangs unit. Montsion was assisting patrol officers the day the confrontation took place.
The police source added that Ottawa police don't get specific training on how to use the gloves.
Ottawa police refused to provide more information about the gloves — including which officers have access to them, when the force acquired them, and protocols for use — citing the SIU investigation.
The force later advised that questions about the gloves would only be answered through a freedom of information request.
Toronto police, meanwhile, told CBC News that officers in its emergency task force (ETF) unit have been using gloves reinforced with a "plastic moulding over the knuckle area" for more than 20 years.
"Often, when ETF officers must force their way into a location they face hazards such as broken glass, jagged metal/wood from door frames, locks, hinges, etc. Some gloves do have a plastic moulding over the knuckle area, but these are for officers using door rams or other breaching tools," force spokesperson Meaghan Gray wrote in an emailed statement.
Asked specifically whether Toronto police are allowed to strike people wearing the gloves with moulding over the knuckles, Gray didn't rule it out.
"In a dynamic situation, officers are allowed to use reasonable force as necessary and while that may involve force by hand, is it reasonable to expect an officer to remove their gloves first? While none of our gloves are issued for a purpose other than protection, I simply can't speculate on how the gloves factor into every incident," Gray wrote.
Gloves not considered weapons by ministry
The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services is responsible for approving weapons used by police in the province and establishes technical standards for them.
The ministry said Tuesday that protective equipment including gloves, helmets and vests are not classified as weapons and therefore don't need to be approved.
The Ottawa Police Services Board does not have a policy specific to reinforced gloves, board chair Eli El-Chantiry wrote in an emailed statement.
"The Police Services Act of Ontario prohibits members of the police services board from being involved in day-to-day police operations, and this would include matters related to equipment needs of officers," he wrote.
The Ontario Police College — which is responsible for the basic training of all police in Ontario — does not teach use-of-force techniques related to gloves, including assault gloves, according to Brent Ross, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.
The college also does not keep track of which police forces use the gloves, Ross said.
'No different from a baton'
The lack of training on the specialized gloves surprises Michael Kempa, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa who focuses on policing and the politics of security.
"My understanding is that these gloves will help you punch through a window without damaging your hands. So if you're thinking that you might be striking members of the public with those gloves in a confrontation, you've got to have proper training," he said.
"It's no different from a baton or handcuffs or any other weapon — pepper spray, for example — that the police might have to use."
Police officers should be trained on when to use the gloves, as well as how, Kempa said.
"I think we can imagine that if the police are running a raid, breaking down the doors and windows of a house for a high-conflict arrest, the gloves might be completely appropriate. Patrolling the streets, there may be moments when it's appropriate, but we'd like to know when it is and when it isn't," he said.
"They are plated and they become like a weapon, really rather like brass knuckles. So it is concerning that we don't seem to have a very clear protocol for when the gloves are supposed to be used and not used."
With files from Amanda Pfeffer, Steve Fischer, Judy Trinh and Joe Lofaro