SIU likely won't consider race in Abdi arrest investigation, says former deputy chief

Ontario's police watchdog will likely not look into whether racial bias was a factor in last month's fatal arrest of Abdirahman Abdi, a former high-ranking Ottawa officer says.

But internal standards section could — and should, says Larry Hill

Const. Dave Weir, left, and Const. Daniel Montsion, left, are seen kneeling by Abdirahman Abdi outside his apartment building on Hilda Street. (Still from YouTube video)

Ontario's police watchdog will likely not look into whether racial bias was a factor in the fatal arrest of Abdirahman Abdi, a former high-ranking Ottawa officer says.

However, the Ottawa Police Service's professional standards section could — and should — investigate how the two officers who arrested the Somali-Canadian man on July 24 have dealt with people of colour in the past, said Larry Hill, a retired deputy chief of police.

"The police service themselves can be honest and say we need to look at this," Hill told CBC News on Monday. "The optics aren't good. The community has concerns. We have to take those concerns very seriously, and we have to act on that."

Ontario's Special Investigations Unit (SIU) has been tasked with looking into the actions of Const. Dave Weir and Const. Daniel Montsion, two OPS officers who were called to a Hintonburg coffee shop after receiving reports that a woman had been groped.

Witnesses have told CBC News the 37-year-old Abdi was restrained outside the coffee shop before police arrived, although he wasn't arrested there.

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)

Other witnesses have described two officers beating him outside his Hilda Street apartment building. There have been reports Abdi was pepper sprayed, beaten with a baton and punched in the head during the arrest.

Abdi was taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead the next day.

On Saturday, hundreds marched from a square near Abdi's apartment to the police force's Elgin Street headquarters, chanting slogans like "black lives matter," "silence is violence," and — upon arriving at the headquarters — "shame on you."

'Would a judge really care about that?'

Weir is now on leave and Montsion, who was assisting patrol the day Abdi was arrested, is back on his usual investigative duty, police Chief Charles Bordeleau has said.

Under the Police Services Act, the OPS's professional standards section is mandated to carry out its own internal investigation, regardless of what the SIU's probe uncovers.

However, the SIU investigation — which could lead to criminal charges — may not consider questions about whether racial bias played a part in Abdi's arrest to be of major importance, Hill said.

"It could be part of a reason for what may or may not have happened. [But] I'm not sure that would be relevant to take to court. Would a judge really care about that? Other than 'this happened, and this is a result.'"

Larry Hill, a former deputy chief of police with the Ottawa Police Service, says race will definitely be a factor in any internal investigation into Abdi's arrest. (CBC)

But for a professional standards investigation, said Hill, those questions around race and motivation matter a great deal.

"It's relevant in terms of ... the relationship with our diverse community. You can't discount that," Hill said. "Therefore you must take that very seriously, and look into it."

Matt Skof, the head of the police association — the union representing Ottawa police — has said any suggestion racism could have played a role in Abdi's arrest are "inappropriate."​

Investigation should be as 'open as possible'

Calvin Lawrence, a retired RCMP officer who offers police departments consulting on race relations, told CBC News that being open with the public, particularly the city's Somali-Canadian community, about the progress of both the SIU investigation and any internal probe is the best policy. 

"I would be in the community and I would be keeping people abreast of the process. Information is power," Lawrence said.

"You do a timely, accurate, open-as-possible investigation and then you tell the truth, no matter who it helps or who it hurts.

"If there's wrongdoing, that has to be addressed. If they're exonerated, that's the way it is."