by Matteo Cimellaro & Tim Kitz
On December 27, 2020, a group of seven Black youth met up in a St. Laurent Mall parking lot to plan a music video shoot. Suddenly 10 police cruisers arrived on the scene with 15 officers, some armed with rifles and with weapons drawn. The young men were handcuffed and detained — yet released without charges — and walked away from the experience deeply shaken.
The Valued 7 — as they came to be called — went public about the incident, garnering support on social media and sympathetic media coverage. Community organizers wrote an open letter to the Ottawa Police demanding transparency through the release of security camera footage and 911 transcripts, among other demands. Two months later, the Ottawa Police started to publicly fight back, with Chief Peter Sloly appearing before the Ottawa Police Service Board to accuse activists and the media of a “mis- and disinformation.”
We have covered the story of the Valued 7 before, but today we want to dig deeper. What can their story teach us about how the police operate? How do Ottawa Police handle public criticism? And what can the Valued 7 tell us about the institutions that purport to hold the police service to account?
How to fight back against criticism
Critical media coverage of Ottawa Police has continued to pile up recently. Already in November 2020, we could compile a catalogue of damning stories in our Leveller editorial “All (Ottawa) Cops Are Bad.” Yet more kept arriving in the new year. Two national investigations by the CBC’s Fifth Estate appeared in February and March, one exposing an “entrenched sexism culture of sexism within the Ottawa Police Service,” the other showing how Ottawa Police routinely invade people’s homes through no-knock raids, in a way that “reflects a casual disregard for charter rights,” as Ontario Superior Court Justice Sally Gomery put it.
Two days after the first Fifth Estate story, and two months after the Valued 7 were held at gunpoint, Chief Sloly publicly fought back against narratives surrounding the incident. Sloly defended police’s response when publicly addressing the incident at the Ottawa Police Service Board (OPSB) meeting on Feb. 21. He was invited to give this presentation after an in-camera (i.e. confidential) meeting with board members in January.
In his presentation, Sloly levied accusations of a mis- and disinformation against activists and media. Sloly based these accusations on a single still image, which he used to contest a common narrative that the Valued 7 were neither masked nor armed. As member of the Valued 7 Chris Simba had put it in a January 8 Toronto Star op-ed, “We weren’t ‘five Black men in ski masks armed.’ We met to discuss a film production and ended up in the back of an Ottawa police cruiser.”
Sloly’s grainy image, said to be from security camera footage, seemed to show someone with an indistinct or covered face holding a gun. Sloly always referred to this as a “replica” of a Beretta M9, which has been the service pistol of the United States military since 1985. A little casual googling (using the barrel inscription “Daisy Powerline”) shows it’s not a replica in the sense of a prop gun or blank-firing gun, but $20 BB gun or “air pistol” derided by online reviewers for being so cheap it falls apart on its first use.
Let’s remember that despite public pressure to release the 911 audio and transcripts and full footage to have a clearer, full account of the incident, the Ottawa police provided a single still frame. By showing a young man holding the BB gun and wearing a ski mask (both props to be used in their music video), the photo seems like it might support Sloly’s argument of misinformation.
The story of the Valued 7 shows us how the police force’s lack of transparency corrodes the public’s trust in the service to act in good faith.
Before Sloly’s presentation, Chris Simba wrote, “We were not wearing ski-masks and brandishing a weapon… There was a prop BB gun in the car for use in the music video about gun violence but it stayed in the car at all times.” After Sloly’s presentation, Simba affirmed “The BB gun was a prop for a film production to raise awareness. It was never brandished outside of the car.”
The truth is that without 911 transcripts or full footage, it remains difficult to judge how appropriate the Ottawa Police’s response was.
Mandi Pekan, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma within BIPOC communities, shared a letter with The Leveller that she sent to the OPSB following Sloly’s presentation .
“True transparency was releasing the 911 audio, the 911 display call on the police screens and the full video of the incident leading up to it. It’s evident the still-image captured was partial information to provide a one-sided story. If Ottawa Police truly want to practice transparency, then let the public see what happened in the parking lot, what ignited a crime in progress, how the young men were approached and why the ‘white’ young man wasn’t arrested at the same ‘crime’ scene.”
The Leveller asked OPSB Chair Diane Deans if the board saw the full footage or 911 transcripts at an earlier in-camera meeting. Deans said the Board asked Sloly to give a public presentation following the meeting, but other details of the meeting could not be commented upon due to in-camera confidentiality.
In the end, Sloly seemed to see the photo as definitive proof that discredited media narratives and a social media campaign that demanded accountability for what seemed like a racially-motivated reaction and excessive show of force by police. Yet without releasing fuller, contextual information, this is impossible to judge.
How to sabotage the media
Whether or not it was deliberate, Sloly and the Ottawa Police seem to have hit on a convenient strategy to short-circuit media fact-checking — then scold them for spreading malicious disinformation.
During The Leveller’s initial reporting on the Valued 7, Ottawa Police did not respond to any interview requests, nor answer any of our written questions. This included ignoring questions that would have confirmed or contested facts from the incident as the Valued 7 described them. This is all standard journalistic practice for ethical and dependable reporting. (Following Sloly’s presentation, we also requested follow-up to comment on what was meant by a “mis- and disinformation campaign.” We did not receive a response.)
It’s not just small leftist community newspapers that the Ottawa Police ignore. CBC News was also refused interviews or comment for the two more recent Fifth Estate investigations, as in-depth and troubling as they were.
With a monkey wrench into reporters’ fact-checking, Sloly can scold the media for getting their facts wrong and indulge his persecution complex. (N.B. No Leveller contributors or editors have the credentials to diagnose psychological conditions and references to Sloly’s persecution complex, etc., should of course be taken as speculative satire.) Board meetings are a safe space for Sloly to rant about a “disinformation campaign” that he believes is conspiring against the Ottawa Police, an “unfair trend” and “seemingly-organized campaign” to discredit police and “intimidate anyone who does not agree with their views on policing.”
Fortunately, board members like Robert Swaita were there to stand up against the mean activists bullying the poor police. Swaita asked “Is there any way to educate those that are sending misinformation, or hold them accountable for potentially endangering the lives of officers?”
That’s a chilling question for anyone who reported on the Valued 7, who the police and police board think got their story wrong. (But fear not dear reader, we do not plan on backing down or pulling our punches.)
How to ignore racism
After Sloly’s presentation, only Ottawa Police Service Board members could ask questions. They did not question whether 10 cruisers and 15 armed officers was excessive, or if the Valued 7’s race contributed to the 911 call.
In his presentation, Sloly said six people were involved in the incident. But there was a seventh member, the white-passing Key Shawn Bout, who was treated with care and concern by police while his friends were accosted at gunpoint, according to his account in the Toronto Star.
Sloly said that the a “full review” of the incident was conducted. This led him to conclude that “All of our members involved in the call, including the communications centre and the responding officers, acted appropriately and professionally in this incident, and I thank them all publicly for their efforts.”
Let that sink in. It seems like Sloly either thinks it is appropriate and professional for police officers to treat a ‘white’ suspect differently from Black suspects — or the review was so incomplete and incompetent that he doesn’t even realize there was a seventh, white-passing man involved.
Mandi Pekan, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma within BIPOC communities, told The Leveller over email about Ottawa Police’s reluctance to confront community criticism.
“How can we begin to address any issues — when they are not deemed as issues? How do we begin to tackle these issues around force?”
Activists and media, including The Leveller, questioned why the response by Ottawa Police required a SWAT-level response, but this also went unanswered in Sloly’s presentation. Souheil Benslimane, a prison abolitionist organizer with the Criminalization & Punishment Education Project, spoke to The Leveller about the dangerous nature of the incident.
“Imagine if the folks who were arrested had criminal records and warrants, it could have led to arrests, it could have led to death. It’s not something anybody should have to be subjected to whether they are carrying a real weapon or not,” Benslimane said.
The story of the Valued 7 shows us how the police force’s lack of transparency corrodes the public’s trust in the service to act in good faith. The Ottawa Police seem to be treating the media as an enemy to be avoided at best and discredited at worst. Meanwhile, they prefer to address the public at board meetings where their colleagues on the board can literally control who gets to speak.
How to blame the victim
During his public presentation, Chief Sloly pointedly remarked that the Valued 7 never made an official complaint.
Yet when a complaint is filed with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), as Pekan notes, it is screened and transferred back to the Ottawa Police Service Professional Standards to investigate their own members.
“Why would anyone who has been traumatized by Ottawa Police file a complaint with OIPRD to have their complaint re-routed back to the same policing service, who they don’t see as legitimate, to investigate their fellow officers?” Pekan asked.
It seems fair to assume the Valued 7 did not trust the Ottawa Police to investigate their own members in good faith.
“Coming forward in the media was the greatest form of transparency and the truest form of a public complaint,” Pekan stated.
How to keep failing the public
As we slide through spring and into summer, new controversies involving the Ottawa Police continue to emerge.
On March 24, two days after Chief Sloly announced a pause on some dynamic entries — police-speak for ‘no-knock’ raids — armed police officers entered the wrong house on a mental health wellness check, according to CBC News. In the Ngoto family’s account, they were awoken by around ten officers, weapons in hand. Ottawa Police say this was not a dynamic entry and that they announced themselves before entering, yet none of the six people in the house heard them.
Like the Ngotos, we at The Leveller are unsure how a dozen heavily-armed police officers barging into the right house would have helped someone experiencing a mental health crisis. (We send paramedics not police to medical emergencies; couldn’t we send equivalent trained personnel to mental health emergencies?)
On April 4, an officer was caught on camera commenting on the frequency of mixed couples he has seen in Toronto and declaring that “our days are done — white man’s day’s done.”
The comments echo white replacement theory — a slightly more polite version of the white genocide conspirary theory, which claims the white race is being erased by immigration and interracial relationships.
The Ottawa Police have launched a Professional Standards Unit investigation into the officer’s racist comments. The officer has since been suspended while the investigation is ongoing. No investigation was launched in the botched mental wellness check.
Sloly and the Ottawa Police did take a step towards reform by banning officers from wearing the Thin Blue Line in February 2021, according to Global News. Yet the Thin Blue Line flag can still be spotted outside the Ottawa Police union office on Catherine Street.
The symbol refers to the idea that police are a ‘thin blue line’ separating society from lawless chaos. This suggest police need to stick together, in order to hold the line against criminal anarchy. Relatedly, the symbol can also suggest a code of silence, “which discourages officers from reporting improper and unlawful conduct by fellow officers,” according to law professors Ann Hodges and Justin Pugh.
“Police have their own code of silence,” Pekan told The Leveller. “A brotherhood built on lies and deception. It aims to deceive the public about what policing is. It deceives their own members about what they’re accomplishing. The us versus them mentality is entrenched in their everyday work.”
While the idea and some of the symbolism of the Thin Blue Line have been around for decades, the symbol really took off in the wake of the “Blue Lives Matter” backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement. Internationally, it has appeared on numerous flags at hate rallies, including the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville and the Capitol Hill insurrection attempt.
While police brass can ban officers from displaying the symbol, it seems like the rank and file still want to use it, judging by its continued defiant use by their union. Apparently they are untroubled by the way the symbol is increasingly associated with opposition to racial justice.
How to move forward
The political theatre of Sloly’s performance before the police board shows the limits of existing mechanisms to hold police accountable. The police are embedded in the entire formal complaint process, with the chief of police and other officers playing a central role in all Police Service Board meetings.
“[The board] is a spectacle,” according to Benslimane. “It’s a very one-way conversation. They say they are listening to people but in reality I don’t think they understand where we come from.”
Activists and critics of the police need to find ways of going over the heads of police, to address politicians and the public. “Change will never come within policing walls — the pressure should be directed towards our elected politicians,” Pekan said.
Pekan and Benslimane argue for activism beyond formal processes and institutions that embed police within it, like the demonstration that blocked the intersection of Nicholas and Laurier last November, or the Black Lives Matter international movement last summer.
Through these demonstrations and online activity, activists demanded a defunding and reallocation of funds to social services. Members of Ottawa’s City Council forwarded a motion to reallocate police funds to public health, but the motion failed at City Hall. Ottawa’s budget passed with a $13.2 million dollar increase for police — $5.8 million of that dedicated to “growth needs.” By contrast, city council gave Ottawa Public Health $1.1 million for maintenance costs and nothing for growth.
Let’s linger over that fact a little, shall we? In a year of unprecedented protests against police brutality and calls to defund the police that produced tremendous local pressure, in a year of a worldwide ongoing pandemic that shut down the city multiple times, Ottawa City Council increased the police budget but figured Ottawa Public Health didn’t need to grow.
Benslimane and other activists fear that even if public pressure at the municipal level shifts policy or leads to significant defunding, the provincial government still has the power to intervene.
Again, this only highlights the challenges activists and police critics face here in Ottawa. They need to do what they can through complaints processes and the police board, while pressuring municipal and provincial politicians. And they need to educate the public and expose the systemic rot at the heart of our police system — oh, and build workable alternatives.
By doing this work, these brave activists are trying to turn back a kind of momentum juggernaut. Police powers and resources have perpetually expanded for decades. There has been a massive militarization of policing. Police budgets have ballooned inexorably — regardless of changing economic conditions or political regimes, through decades of austerity that have seen slashes and stagnation in social spending.
Yet the Ottawa Police seem like they might just be… a little bit afraid. This fall they arrested a group of Black and Indigenous youth right before they were about to meet with local politicians to discuss reining in police excess. This winter they short-circuited fact-checking by media who criticize them, then cried “gotcha, you’re fake news!” So when communities harmed by police get together and the media starts listening to them and telling their stories, the chief starts talking about the “hostility and intimidation” that police and their allies face.
It seems like the head of possibly the most powerful, violent, colonial institution in the city just isn’t used to this kind of opposition. Maybe the juggernaut is starting to sweat?
Note: We did not ask Ottawa Police to comment on this story, given the way they ignored multiple past requests. If they deign to notice little old us (humble community and campus newspaper that we are) and respond to this, we promise to update this article as appropriate. As we always say, letters of love and hate can be sent to email@example.com.