Ottawa

SIU data reveals criminal charges against Ottawa police didn't stick from 2011-2015

From 2011 to 2015 there were 72 police watchdog investigations into the conduct of Ottawa Police Service officers, but only four of them resulted in criminal charges being laid. In all four cases, the criminal charges didn't stick.

'... The effectiveness and the efficiency of this body isn't there at all. It needs to change'

The Special Investigations Unit is one of three Ontario police watchdogs being reviewed by a panel that will recommend ways to enhance oversight accountability and transparency. (CBC)

Dahabo Ahmed Omer remembers how helpless she felt, trapped behind the glass entrance of a Hintonburg apartment building on the morning of July 24.

On the other side, police officers blocked the door while they attended to Abdirahman Abdi, who was lying lifeless on the ground after a confrontation with police.

According to Omer there were about 10 people inside pressed against the glass door. Some of them were sobbing, including members of Abdi's family. The superintendent of the building was pleading with officers to let the family go to Abdi.

The next day, the 37-year-old Somali-Canadian man was dead.

"I wish I could have gone out there and pushed the officers aside and given CPR myself," said Omer, remembering the guilt she and others felt.

But anger turned to outrage as she and others created the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, a group dedicated to demanding accountability and transparency in the investigation of Abdi's death by one of the province's police oversight agencies, the Special Investigations Unit.

The SIU investigates any case involving an Ontario police officer that results in death, sexual assault or serious injury.

Ontario police watchdog review comes to Ottawa

Like many in Ottawa's Somali community, Omer is happy the Independent Police Oversight Review panel has come to the capital to hear suggestions for improving police oversight agencies, including the SIU.

One common criticism of the SIU is that it's made up of former police officers, which some feel opens the unit up to prejudice. 

"You can't monitor yourself, right? You have to have an external entity to monitor activities so you have a fair judgement," said Walid Darwish of the National Council of Canadian Muslims at the police oversight meeting in Ottawa.

From 2011 to 2015 there were 72 SIU investigations into the conduct of Ottawa Police Service officers, but only four of the 72 cases resulted in criminal charges being laid, a rate of just over five per cent.

In all four cases the criminal charges were either acquitted, stayed, downgraded or withdrawn.

So far in 2016 there have been 11 SIU investigations, but it's too soon to tell whether charges will or won't be laid in those cases.

  • 2011: 13 investigations, one of which led to a criminal charge.
  • 2012: 18 investigations, no charges.
  • 2013: 18 investigations, no charges.
  • 2014: 9 investigations, two of which led to criminal charges.
  • 2015: 14 investigations, one of which led to criminal charges.
  • 2016: 11 investigations so far, no charges so far.

2011: Const. Colin Bowie and Const. Thanh Tran: found not guilty

The SIU charged Const. Colin Bowie and Const. Thanh Tran with assault causing bodily harm after the two officers were accused of tripping and pushing 50-year-old Hugh Styres face-first into the pavement on a Sandy Hill sidewalk in August 2011.

Styres suffered facial fractures.

A judge found the officers not guilty in 2013.

Police and firefighters tend to Hugh Styres, a homeless man who was sleeping on an Osgoode Street sidewalk in August 2011 and suffered facial fractures during an arrest. (Tasha Doucette)

2014: Const. Erin Cavan and Const. Jordan Blonde: criminal charges withdrawn

The SIU charged Const. Erin Cavan and Const. Jordan Blonde with assault after the two officers conducted a strip search on 32-year-old Ismael Omar Awaleh while he was in their custody at the Queensway Carleton Hospital in May 2014.

Awaleh was deported to Somalia before the case could be heard and the Crown withdrew the charges, citing no reasonable prospect of conviction.

SIU director Tony Loparco said he disagreed with that decision, according to SIU spokesperson Monica Hudon.

Ismael Omar Awaleh was strip searched at the Queensway Carleton Hospital in May 2014, and two Ottawa police officers were later charged with assault. (Danny Globerman/CBC)

2014: Sgt. Martin Rukavina, Const. Serge Clement and Const. Carl Grimard: criminal charges stayed

Following an SIU investigation all three were charged with criminal negligence causing bodily harm following a June 2014 training explosion that left five emergency responders injured, two of them seriously.

The charges against all three officers were stayed earlier this year. A stay of charges differs from a withdrawal of charges in that they can be brought back before the courts within one year of the day they're stayed.

Sgt. Martin Rukavina and two other officers were charged following a training exercise explosion in June 2014. (CBC News)

2015: Const. William Randal Stockdale: criminal charge downgraded to traffic offence

The SIU charged Const. William Randal Stockdale with dangerous driving causing bodily harm after a police pursuit ended in a collision in February 2015.

The charge was downgraded from the criminal code to careless driving under the Ontario Highway Traffic Act. Stockdale pleaded guilty, was fined $1,200 and lost six demerit points, among other penalties.

During a police pursuit an OC Transpo bus collided with a car on Feb. 19, 2015, sending four people to hospital. (CBC)

SIU mandate being 'politicized,' Ottawa police union says

Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, said the SIU has inappropriately criminalized situations that would have been better dealt with using other disciplinary means. 

"In the last three years, the officers haven't even been reassigned from their [jobs], and rightfully so, because these charges are completely inappropriate," he said.

The charges have led to millions of dollars in court costs paid for by taxpayers when the issues should have been dealt with outside the criminal system, he said.

"I've been saying this for many years. The SIU has a mandate to investigate, but I believe that they inappropriately criminalize our profession out of sheer public pressure, and the politicizing of their mandate," Skof said.

The Ottawa Police Association has met with the Ontario police watchdog review panel to share its thoughts on police oversight, Skof said.

Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, says the SIU shouldn't be criminalizing the actions of officers. (CBC)

Ottawa's Somali community says review is welcome

But Omer said the rate at which charges are laid against officers does nothing to build trust between the community and police, and said the review is a welcome opportunity to vent their concerns and offer solutions.

"I think the [SIU] is not being used effectively," said Omer, adding it's been 26 years since the organization was founded.

"If we look at the numbers it would show that the effectiveness and the efficiency of this body isn't there at all. It needs to change."

Skof looks at the numbers and comes to the same conclusion.

"We've had issues where SIU made suggestions they don't have enough resources. ... It's an efficiency issue," said Skof, adding that three separate oversight agencies are fighting for funding: the SIU, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission.

In an emailed statement, Hudon wrote that it's the responsibility of Crown attorneys, not the SIU, to determine what happens with charges laid by the SIU.

"The director of the SIU is mandated under the Police Services Act to direct the laying of charges if there are reasonable grounds to believe that an offence has been committed," Hudon wrote.

"The Crown is required to assess the evidence against the standard of a reasonable prospect of conviction, which is a higher standard than reasonable grounds to lay a charge."

Ontario's attorney general and MPP for Ottawa Centre, Yasir Naqvi, said restoring people's faith in the police service is key to rebuilding trust.

"As we build a 21st century model of policing in the province of Ontario we need to make sure that the oversight bodies are modernized at the same time," he said.

"You do hear stories that people's trust may be shaken. We have to pay attention to that and we have to make sure we restore that, strengthen that."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amanda Pfeffer has worked for the CBC across the country, including Montreal, Vancouver, Fredericton, Quebec City and Ottawa. She welcomes story ideas and tips at amanda.pfeffer@cbc.ca, or twitter @onthebeat1.

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