Stacey DeBungee's family to wait months to learn Thunder Bay officer's fate for flawed death investigation
2-day disciplinary hearing for Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison wrapped this week
Brad DeBungee says that to get answers and accountability, it takes perseverance.
"Don't give up. Put that in bold," he told CBC News.
He has spent the last seven years fighting to learn what happened to his brother Stacey of Rainy River First Nation, after his body was found the morning of Oct. 19, 2015, in the McIntyre River in Thunder Bay, Ont.
Now, Brad has to wait again to find out what disciplinary action Thunder Bay police Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison will face as the lead investigator in the DeBungee death case.
Greg Walton, the adjudicator, heard arguments during the two-day disciplinary hearing this week to determine Harrison's fate. Earlier this spring, Walton issued a guilty verdict against Harrison, for neglect of duty and discreditable conduct under Ontario's Police Services Act, finding evidence the officer "failed to treat the investigation equally, without discrimination due to Stacey DeBungee's Indigenous status."
Walton also found Harrison failed to take a number of basic investigative steps, like interviewing key witnesses and reviewing reports, after prematurely concluding the death was non-suspicious — a determination attributable, at least in part, to an unconscious bias.
Among the options presented to Walton for disciplinary action include a temporary demotion, all the way up to termination.
'There's nobody here that will protect them'
The penalty hearing began Tuesday morning with testimony from Stacey's sister, Candace DeBungee, his brother Brad and former Rainy River chief Jim Leonard.
Brad and Leonard submitted a public complaint to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) in 2016 that led to the disciplinary action against Harrison, as well as a broader review of the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) that found evidence of systemic racism within the TBPS.
Ontario Provincial Police are also now reinvestigating DeBungee's death, a process that has been going on for more than a year.
I don't feel any sense of closure. There's no feeling of something being complete.- Jim Leonard, former chief of Rainy River First Nation, testifying about the ongoing impact of Stacey DeBungee's death
During his testimony about the impact of Stacey's death and the deficient police investigation, Leonard said the last seven years have not felt productive.
"I don't feel any sense of closure. There's no feeling of something being complete," he said. "We are no further today than we were in 2015 [finding out what happened to Stacey.]"
He added that community members from Rainy River First Nation "don't feel that they're safe here, and [that] there's nobody here that will protect them."
The lack of answers, and the long delay in getting to this disciplinary process, has created a sense of "defeatedness" among community members, Leonard said, just another example of how they've been wronged and nothing is getting better.
"My grandfather used to tell me not to go to places where you're not wanted. And I feel that I'm not wanted here, so I won't come here," Leonard said during that testimony.
When she took to the witness box, Candace brought a green bag with her.
"In this bag are the funeral clothes that I buried my brother in. I will never know [what happened to him]. That hurts. That really hurts," she said, adding she feels the Thunder Bay police "did not do anything" to protect her brother or find answers after he died.
"Everybody's lost somebody, but not knowing, that's torture," she said in her testimony.
Range of disciplinary options available
Lawyers for Harrison, the TBPS, and the family and First Nation also made their arguments about what penalty Harrison should receive.
While the adjudicator is not bound by the lawyers' arguments and can choose a penalty he sees fit, the options presented before him include:
- A one-step demotion to the rank of sergeant, for a period of three to six months, suggested by Harrison's lawyer.
- A two-step demotion to first-class constable, with the possibility of promotion every 12 months if Harrison maintains a clean record, in addition to Indigenous cultural competency training provided by the Indigenous Justice Division at Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General, as argued by lawyers for the TBPS.
- The family and First Nation is calling for Harrison to be fired from the TBPS, saying he is no longer fit to serve as a police officer.
During the hearing, Harrison agreed to take the training, as proposed by TBPS lawyers.
There were a number of key factors each lawyer argued should or should not be considered when it comes to Walton's final decision on the penalty.
Mistrust between police, Indigenous community
One of the most significant factors in considering the disciplinary action is the reality in Thunder Bay about the deep mistrust between police and the Indigenous community, and the role this flawed investigation played in deteriorating that relationship, all parties agreed.
The testimony from Leonard and the DeBungee family members spoke to that issue, in addition to the considerable national media coverage of the relationship, the lawyers said.
In 2018, the OIPRD and Murray Sinclair released two reports that found evidence of systemic racism within the police force and its oversight board. The OIPRD's "Broken Trust" report also called for the sudden deaths of DeBungee and nine other Indigenous people to be reinvestigated, because the original TBPS investigations were conducted so poorly.
Earlier this year, the team tasked with nine of the 10 "Broken Trust" reinvestigations completed a series of confidential reports, which were later leaked to CBC News, that identified significant deficiencies in those original investigations. They also sent a confidential report to Ontario's attorney general, calling for deaths of another 14 Indigenous people in the city to be reinvestigated.
That led to Indigenous leaders representing two-thirds of the First Nations in Ontario to publicly call for the dismantling of the TBPS, and for the TBPS to lose its power to investigate major cases in Thunder Bay.
"The Thunder Bay Police Service is abysmal in respect of its relationship with and treatment of Indigenous people," said Asha James, lawyer for the DeBungee family and Rainy River First Nation.
"They are rotten from the inside out and they do need new leadership and a clean slate," she said, adding the TBPS should take a stand and say this behaviour will not be tolerated in our ranks.
"Anything less would, quite frankly, just be more of the status quo."
The police officer's lawyer, David Butt, also took aim at the police service, saying there was "systemic ineptitude" and calling it an "abysmally run police service."
But he warned against "scapegoating" one officer for the systemic failings of the service, and applying an excessive or unfair punishment.
"It may be tempting, with weak leadership, to say, 'Hey, I can divert attention away by throwing an individual officer under the bus.' But again, that's not how you fix these problems," Butt said during his statements.
He added that no supervisors in the police service took issue with any of the decisions Harrison was making during the death investigation until months later.
Harrison's police record questioned
Harrison's record as an officer with the TBPS was also brought up multiple times throughout the proceeding, as he had never been subject to disciplinary action.
He also has served as a supervising officer with the service, working as a watch commander for most of the last six years, and also had a stint running the TBPS intelligence unit. As watch commander, he is responsible during his shifts for supervising the entire city and police operations, Harrison testified.
During the penalty hearing, the officer also submitted into evidence an affidavit containing details of 40 major cases — ranging from robberies to serious assaults, homicides and missing persons — that he worked on between 2008 and 2016, all of which involved people of colour and who were mostly Indigenous victims.
Harrison's lawyer argued for the affidavit to be included in the evidence to demonstrate "the bigger picture of his work for the Indigenous community," that it demonstrates the mistakes made in the DeBungee investigation were an isolated incident, and he acted without unconscious bias affecting his work on any of the other cases.
While testifying, Harrison said he completed all of his required duties in those investigations.
But upon cross-examination by James, he acknowledged at least two of the cases were later reinvestigated as part of the "Broken Trust" report, something that was not indicated in the affidavit.
"It speaks volumes to Staff Sgt. Harrison's character that he would come on the stand as an officer of the court and not provide fulsome information as to the fact that some of these investigations were deemed necessary to be reinvestigated because of the way the investigation was initially handled," James said in her closing arguments.
"I was only able to find two. That doesn't mean that the rest of them may not have deficiencies."
Butt argued in reply that while there are deficiencies listed in the "Broken Trust" report for those two investigations, there have not been further disciplinary actions taken or allegations of misconduct in those or any of Harrison's other cases.
Former chief looks to begin moving forward
These are just some of the arguments Walton will have to consider before coming to a decision on the penalty Harrison will face.
A decision is still weeks or months away, with Walton saying he won't have time to begin writing it until at least January.
As the process comes to a close, former Rainy River chief Jim Leonard said now is the time to begin healing.
"This is an opportunity to take what we've learned, and to move forward in good faith and to start to rebuild the relationship between the Thunder Bay police and the First Nations," he told CBC News.
It's a process Leonard believes will take generations.