by Sarah Nixon
On March 6, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) laid charges against Constable Daniel Montsion following a seven-month investigation into his involvement in the death of Abdirahman Abdi. The SIU, a provincial police watchdog unit responsible for investigating cases of death, serious injury or sexual assault involving members of the police force, concluded that Const. Montsion should be charged with manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon. Const. Montsion, who had been assigned to desk duty since the incident on July 24, 2016, was suspended from work with pay and awaits a March 29, 2017 court date.
Abdi, a Somali-Canadian with mental health issues, died in hospital after an altercation with Ottawa police on the morning of July 24, 2016. After reportedly groping a woman at a Bridgehead coffee shop on Wellington Street, Abdi fled from police toward his Hilda Street apartment complex, where officers arrived and proceeded to restrain him. Eyewitnesses reported that Abdi was pepper-sprayed, punched and beaten with a baton during the altercation.
Surveillance video of the incident has not been released to the public, but Heather Badenoch, a communications consultant, is among a small group of individuals who have reviewed the footage. Badenoch described what transpires in the video to the CBC. Badenoch said the footage shows Abdi was lying still, face down on the pavement in front of the building, when Const. Montsion “punches him in the head very violently, twice, and we never see Abdi move again.” When paramedics arrived on the scene, they found Abdi showing no vital signs. They attempted to revive him and transported him to hospital in critical condition. He was pronounced dead at 3:17 p.m. the following afternoon.
The SIU’s announcement of the charges to be laid against Const. Montsion was received with some reservations by the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition. The Coalition was formed in the wake of Abdi’s death by a group of diverse community members determined to advocate on his behalf for genuine change to Ottawa’s policing and law enforcement institutions. Farhia Ahmed, spokesperson for the group, wrote in an email to the Leveller that the Coalition “welcomes the decision by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) to lay charges against Constable Daniel Montsion,” but stressed that the charges are only one important step. “We are a long way from justice,” she wrote. Ahmed explained that the SIU has laid only 20 culpable homicide charges since its creation in 1990, 11 of which were manslaughter charges. “There has only been one conviction,” she wrote, while two cases remain before the courts. In a statement released by the Coalition on March 7, they explain that “Abdirahman was not armed and had no violent or criminal history. More importantly, he posed no threat to the officer who took his life.”
Craig McFarlane of the law and legal studies department at Carleton University also expressed reservations about the announced charges. “Const. Montsion’s attorney, Michael Edelson, is a very good lawyer who has had incredible success at protecting his law enforcement clients from severe repercussions,” McFarlane wrote in an email to the Leveller. McFarlane speculated that “the Crown will have a very difficult case to prosecute despite the ample video evidence,” and went on to state that “incidents like the absolutely unnecessary beating death of Abdi will continue until police forces and police officers face severe professional and criminal consequences for their acts.”
“That Abdi died at the hands of police in Ottawa is somewhat of an anomaly. That police routinely use force against racialized groups, the mentally ill and the homeless is not an anomaly,” McFarlane wrote.
However, President of the Ottawa Police Association Matt Skof shared an opposing view in an interview conducted by the CBC shortly after the incident in July. “To suggest that race was an issue in this, it’s inappropriate,” Skof said, also referring to Abdi as “assaultive in behaviour” during the altercation that led to his death.
Montsion failed to attend his bail hearing on the afternoon his charges were announced. Instead, he reported to the Elgin Street police station and was later released from the Kanata OPP station by the senior officer on duty at the time. A representative for the Ministry of the Attorney General justified the action in an interview with the CBC, citing a Criminal Code statute that gives discretion to the officer-in-charge to decide who can be released from holding prior to a bail hearing. However, Montsion’s release and his failure to appear in court caused public concern, with accusations being raised that Montsion is receiving special treatment because he is a police officer.
Controversy in relation to Abdi’s death has also arisen in recent days as a result of Const. Montsion’s use of Oakley brand “Standard Issue Assault Gloves.” Oakley sells a line of gloves designed for use by military and law enforcement professionals. The gloves range from lightweight designs made in part of leather and suede to the heavier duty model worn by Const. Montsion, which are equipped with thick carbon to cover the knuckles of the wearer. Oakley describes this particular product as a “military protective glove” on their website, while a company representative described the carbon plating as “a pair of brass knuckles on a glove” to the CBC. A user review of the gloves displayed on the Oakley site boasts that they “are great for their intended use — assaults,” while another user noted “[k]nuckles are very well protected while punching just about anything.”
The CBC also reported that a source within the Ottawa Police Service identified Montsion’s wearing of the gloves as “central” to the SIU’s assault with a weapon charge. Within the OPS, various units receive these assault gloves to wear on the job. Montsion’s unit, the Direct Action Response Team, was one such unit. Spokesperson for the Toronto police Meghan Gray told CBC News that its members have been using similar reinforced gloves for 20 years, and that they are meant to protect officers when they encounter hazards like “broken glass, jagged metal/wood from door frames, locks, hinges” and so on. However, Gray explained that although gloves are never supplied for the purpose of increasing an officer’s ability to deploy force on another person, police have the discretion to determine the necessary degree of force in a given situation. Gray told the CBC she “simply can’t speculate on how the gloves factor into every incident.”
As a result, concern has been raised about the lack of training for police on the appropriate use of these reinforced gloves. The Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, the entity responsible for approving weapons carried by police in the province, has stated that gloves qualify as protective equipment rather than weapons and therefore do not warrant review.
Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau has ordered an audit of the gloves to determine all members who own them throughout the police force, including those who received the gloves from their units and those who purchased them directly from Oakley. The audit is to be completed by March 22.
In the meantime, the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition will continue its advocacy work, which has been ongoing since August. In that time, the Coalition has established a dialogue with the OPS, and met directly with Bordeleau to address a set of issues within the police force and provide recommendations for their resolution. The Coalition also played a key role in reversing the decision against implementing body camera technology for Ottawa police officers, with a pilot project now set to begin in the near future. The Coalition met with the Ottawa Police Service Board in January to recommend that an independent third party audit of the OPS’ diversity and equity practices be conducted. These are only a few highlights of the many accomplishments made by the Coalition in the past seven months. As Ahmed wrote to the Leveller, “the death of Abdirahman must not be in vain. Abdirahman represented the most vulnerable in our community and his violent death should spur us to do more to address the real issues around systemic racism and the lack of support for mental health.”
Anyone who wants to support the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition can start by visiting their website: www.justiceforabdirahman.ca.
This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 9, No. 6 (Spring 2017).