By Richard Forbes.
It’s a Sunday morning in Ottawa’s Hintonburg neighborhood. To the west of Ottawa’s recognizable downtown core, the ‘Burg is a mixed bag of rundown clapboard homes and trendy artisan shops.
Abdirahman Abdi, a 37 year old Somali-Canadian, leaves a coffee shop being pursued by police as he makes his away towards his apartment. Abdi, accused of ‘assaultive’ behaviour and suffering from mental health issues, tries to shield his head with a foam panel. He reaches the front steps of his apartment when the first officer to reach him, Const. Dave Weir, beats him to the pavement, striking him with a baton across his limbs. They struggle with each other. A second officer would then follow, Const. Daniel Montsion, clad in DART (direct action response) tactical gear – beating Abdi with his fists senselessly with “heavy blows to the head and face.” One of the officers even grabbing the panel Abdi was using to shield his head, only to then beat the subject with it, according to eye witnesses.
Zeinab Abdallah, a senior and a Somali woman herself, witnessed the carnage from her apartment’s entrance, telling CBC News: “I have never seen anything similar to the way they beat him with such malice, animosity and hostility,” she said. “They simply didn’t want him alive, they wanted him dead.” As they continued to beat Abdi, she would plead to the officers: “Please don’t beat him, please.” Even trying to explain to the officers he has mental health issues to no avail, “He can’t listen, he don’t care.”
Abdi would call back to her in Somali, “Sister, protect me from them,” he says. “Zeinab, help me. Zeinab, help me.” Eventually, he would lose consciousness during the beating, his vital signs soon followed and doctors would pronounce him dead the next day, succumbing to fatal injuries from the confrontation. The two officers in question, Montsion and Weir are now the subject of a special investigations unit.
The response from police has been as apologist as an episode of Blue Bloods. Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association has been doing the media rounds, downplaying the event as simply cops doing their job, attending to a call – “I’m worried that the conversation is even occurring,” Skof says, suggesting it would ‘inappropriate’ to tie this incident to a discussion of race. That stuff, the race stuff, is an American problem, Skof scoffs flippantly. It couldn’t happen here. Not Canada, surely not. And yet, it has happened and it will continue to happen! Given, a black man has been beaten to death on the front steps of his apartment, you’re forgiven, dear readers, if you’re not convinced by the nice police union man’s blissful, rosy view of Canada’s race relations.
In classic blue shield spin, the story coming out of Ottawa’s police force has consistently been one of disavowing responsibility – pushing the blame away from cops to the public, who are very inconveniently capturing their violent encounters with subjects on video. That is, when the officers can’t wipe the video off their phones, like two Ottawa police officers pled guilty to doing, earlier this year.
A couple of years ago now, Carleton University Professor Darryl Davies told the Toronto Star that Ottawa’s police force had some deep sated issues of its own to overcome. “Ottawa police problem is poor training or lack of accountability, something has to change and change dramatically if people are going to retain any respect and trust in their police service,” Davies said then. “Only when settlements from lawsuits are added to the police budget are the true costs of policing known to our community.”
But far from agreeing with Davies, Ottawa police chief Charles Bordeleau lamented earlier this year that his force has had to carry this burden of public scrutiny; his officers, he writes, are suffering from fatigue and ‘morale’ issues. “They’re feeling the pressures, the scrutiny, the oversight, the questioning,” says Bordeleau, “you’ve got the video cameras out there – it takes a toll on our people.” Presumably, of course, he means a ‘toll’ in the psychiatric sense, not in the beat-senselessly-by-a-tag-team-of-violent-meatheads sense, for which my natural response is “tough.” If accountability isn’t your thing, you shouldn’t be a police officer. Embracing leadership and responsibility for one’s action is an essential quality of law enforcement; it’s how society distinguishes between cops and thugs.
Relating race to the case of Abdirahman Abdi is a natural extension of the fact he belongs to not one, but three of the most common cleavages of our society who face violent encounters with police: mentally ill, Muslim and black. It’s natural and, in fact, healthy as Ottawa and the rest of Canada goes about its week and tries to understand how something as senseless as this could happen in their city, their country, that we’ve begun the process of looking for answers to homegrown police brutality.
Black Lives Matter, via its co-founder, has advanced one of the most intriguing plans of action, arguing that to address the toxic police culture, police forces should update their hiring and retention strategies to promote older, more experienced officers, while also schooling officers in deescalation techniques. There’s a lot about this plan to find compelling; it’s recognizing a trend among violent police encounters that often goes unnoticed: they’re often committed by younger, less experienced, more immature officers.
For the RCMP, the answer seems to be, not so much the experience of officers, but their ethnicity. They’ve signed a memorandum of understanding with the AFN this month which the RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said would require the RCMP to hire more aboriginal officers than the existing eight percent of the force they currently represent. The agreement also requires biannual consultations between the RCMP and the AFN’s leadership and strikes a mutual commitment to addressing discrimination in RCMP policing against First Nations peoples. Granted, the memorandum is set to expire in three years but it marks a serious change of direction on the RCMP’s part.
This is the same RCMP commissioner who you may remember was both lauded and criticized by rank-and-file and the general public last December when he said “I understand there are racists in my force. I don’t want them to be in my police force,” continuing, by urging action: “I would encourage you all, though, to have confidence in the [discipline] processes that exist, up to and including calling me if you’re having a problem with a racist in your jurisdiction or any other problem.”
Although some found the commissioner’s comments to make unhelpful generalizations, by breaking the administrative taboo and admitting there’s racism within the force, Paulson has struck a pro-active approach in challenging discrimination in his agency. While other police forces seem to be operating in pure denial with regards to accusations of discrimination and racism, the RCMP’s shaken off the denial and now enjoys a head’s start in updating its recruiting and training practices. Which is good. The opportunity before us to address racism in policing cannot be squandered away with denial or over-intellectualization – not when it will take generations to fix.
Ensuring visible minorities are better represented in the police force is only one part of the solution in challenging discrimination, but we can hardly continue to preach the merits of community policing when the cops don’t resemble the communities they’re suppose to be supporting. Nor can we expect racial tensions between minorities and police services to subside without addressing the “us vs them” antagonism that is fed by having overwhelmingly white officers patrolling overwhelmingly not-white neighborhoods.
It won’t be an easy task to accomplish, however. The recruitment of minorities faces an uphill battle. Indeed, Ottawa police constable Mark Miller admitted as much to reporters as early as last week when he said as a black man he had “been treated poorly by [his] own race because of the profession [he’s] chosen.” But without changing the make-up of our police forces to reflect our communities, we’re corroborating the horrible notion that the police are for white people with our own constables as a testament to the fact – and to peddle that notion would be nothing but an abject failure of our justice system in North America. Safety, security and justice is owed to everyone and confidence in our system begins with the faces of those entrusted with upholding them. When lawmakers like those in Louisiana can legislate about ‘blue lives’ juxtaposed against ‘black lives’ with a straight face, it becomes painfully apparent police recruitment in America has failed Black Americans and we mustn’t let the same failure continue here.
But before this article leaves you thinking that ethnicity rates are the sole reason for what’s happened in Ottawa, please resist that notion. Ottawa’s diversity rates compare quite well against police services in other jurisdictions across Canada; especially compared to Toronto which has large racial gaps in their police services, or worse, in the territories, where the population is predominately indigenous while the police are exceedingly white.
For a society looking for answers, one hopeful to avert the death and mistreatment of the next Abdirahman Abdi, we may have to look deeper than the colour of officers, but rather listen to the calls for action among activists in Black Lives Matter, criminologists, and other academics; calls to address the culture of policing in Ottawa, in the rest of Ontario and all across Canada. Which means greater experience, greater communication and deescalation skills, greater accountability, and greater transparency.
But there’s no ‘making this issue go away.’ It’s only a question of whether we do something about it now, or wait till things get worse, until things escalate into something that would sadly be more familiar to the residents of Baton Rouge. We may not have America’s police problem in Canada, but that doesn’t mean we have to let it become that before we act.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked (usually by confused old women) what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.