The impartiality of our police officers is crucial to public trust in them.

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By now, most Ottawans (and many other people as well) are aware of the events surrounding the death of Abdirahman Abdi, a Somoli Canadian with mental health issues who died one day after being severely beaten by Ottawa police officer Const. Daniel Montsion.  Montsion is now facing charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon. He has been suspended with pay from the police force. The facts of the case are that Montsion, an anti-gang officer, responded to 911 calls reporting a man groping women at a Bridgehead at Wellington and Fairmont on a Sunday morning. The alleged groper, Abdi, fled the coffee shop. He was pepper-sprayed, beaten with a baton and punched during his arrest. Some people begged the officers to stop, saying that Abdi was mentally ill. By the following Monday afternoon, Abdi was dead. The courts will now have to figure out what happened between Montsion’s arrival at the Bridgehead and Abdi’s death.

Since then, blue wrist bands engraved with the words “United We Stand”, and Const. Montsion’s badge number (1998), are showing up on the arms of police officers all over the city. The wrist bands are being sold for $2 apiece, and the proceeds go to a police benevolent fund. The officers wear them to declare their support for Montsion. This is worrisome. For one thing, cops are part of Canada’s justice system. They must uphold the law. The law says that Montsion’s trial is where his innocence or guilt will be proven. To declare support for him before either exoneration or sentencing is to circumvent due process. For another, police neutrality is essential. In a case where a man stands accused of killing another man, the police must support both the victim and the alleged killer by ensuring fair treatment until trial. The rights of both parties should be respected by everyone, but particularly by people who are on the public payroll for having sworn to uphold the law and human rights.

Along with both of these considerations is the fragile relationship between the police and Abdi’s peers. Somolia has provided Canada with many newcomers. In Ottawa alone, nearly 7,000 people claim Somoli as their mother tongue. Somolia has been occupied, warring or anarchic (at times, all three) for decades. Considering this, it is understandable that it can be somewhat difficult for Somolian immigrants to trust police officers. Nevertheless, progress has been made. This progress is threatened by wrist bands declaring police officers’ loyalty to a man who stands accused of killing one of their own.

I am not unsympathetic to the challenges faced by police officers on the job. I can only imagine the guts and grit it takes for them to suit up and step out into the world wearing a uniform that means they cannot walk away from anything. They can’t even look away – their calling requires that they move straight into the danger zone, and stay there until they’ve stabilized it. The stress of their position must be, at times, like gasoline – always ready to explode under the right conditions. I don’t believe Const. Montsion meant to hasten to death of Abdirahman Abdi. But it may well turn out that he contributed to it, possibly due to the heady combination of mounting fear, surging adrenaline, chronic stress and heavy pressure. Montsion deserves compassion and support during his ordeal. However, so does Abdi, a victim of what looks and sounds like a brutal assault – and Abdi’s family and friends. They regularly pass the Bridgehead where their loved one was beaten senseless. Now, they have to see cops in uniform – who are entrusted with public safety and enforcement of law and order – wearing approval of Abdi’s treatment. If you were one of them, would you feel like you will be treated fairly by an officer wearing that blue wrist band? Would you even feel safe, knowing that the person with whom you are dealing has the power to arrest you, using force if necessary – and that they support that behaviour toward a member of your community, even though it may have led to his death?

We are all entitled to our opinion. We all have the right to choose where our loyalty lies. Even cops – as private citizens. If Montsion’s colleagues want to be there for him, they can send him a card or call him. They can meet him for a coffee or a beer, and ask how they can help. While off-duty, wearing street clothes. When our police officers put on their uniform and badge, they have to be on everyone’s side. They have to be – in both mind and appearance – as blind as Lady Justice. That is the only way we can be assured of the impartiality needed to carry out her sacred work.

 

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In defence of the handcuffing of Daniel Ten Oever ….

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I’m fairly certain most Ottawa readers, and possibly many readers from other parts of the country – and the world – know about Daniel Ten Oever. He’s the nine-year-old autistic boy who was handcuffed at St. Jerome Catholic School after smashing a toilet tank lid and then throwing chairs around the principal’s office. I first heard about him through this Ottawa Citizen article on February 20. His parents, Dan Ten Oever and Stephanie Huck, are understandably upset over the incident. The account of the school and the police officer differ slightly from Daniel’s version of the story, but it has been agreed by all parties that Daniel was engaging in destructive and dangerous behaviour before being handcuffed.

Mr. Ten Oever and Ms. Huck are demanding all records regarding the school’s interactions with Daniel, and have refused to allow him to return to school until they receive and review the records. They are considering legal action. They are supported by the parents of an eleven-year-old boy who was handcuffed after the same behaviour, throwing a chair, and the parents of a fourteen-year-old boy who was charged with assault after attacking his principal in the hall of his school. He ran at the principal, and hit her with enough force to knock her over. He was approaching her aggressively a second time, while she was still on the ground, but was re-directed by the vice principal. He fled the scene, and later was coaxed by his grandfather to get in his car and come home. They are joined by a pair of heavy-hitters, both emotionally and legally: Restoring Justice, a group focused on creating public awareness on institutional child abuse, and Autism Ontario. Restoring Justice has already begun calling on parents of children with disabilities to come forward with any questionable treatment of their children by schools.

This whole story, and many other similar stories – heartbreaking. I feel sorry for Daniel’s parents, and all the parents like them, who struggle to give their children with special needs the care and education they require. I feel sorry for their beautiful boy, who faces a lifetime of trying so hard to understand and be understood – and every other Daniel out there. But, no matter how many times I think about the events that have led the family to this point, a question remains: what else could the school and the police have done?

St. Jerome has considerable experience dealing with Daniel. School staff have been trained in non-violent crisis prevention. Daniel somehow slipped out of their control, and they did what anyone would do when there is potential for a person to injure themselves or others: they summoned the help of the police. Restoring Dignity claims that the staff was improperly trained in de-escalating crises like the one Daniel was experiencing. How can they make this statement if they were not there to witness the staff’s attempts to help Daniel? Autism Ontario claims that “bad behaviour” by autistic children should not be “punished”. The police had no knowledge of Daniel’s issues or history. They obviously could not sit down for a heart-to-heart with people who know Daniel while the child raged and broke things and posed a threat to himself and others. Their first priority, in any situation, is to secure the environment. The restraining tools at the disposal of police officers? Handcuffs. They were not punishing Daniel. They were trying to keep him, and others, safe.

Fiona is nine. She’s small for her age, and has arms like Olive Oyl. But, if she wanted to, she could cause alot of damage. She could grievously injure a very large adult, if she were bent on it. What if the staff of St. Jerome continued trying to contain the situation until Daniel, or some other person, was injured? What if the police had arrived, attempted to calm him through other means, and were unsuccessful – resulting in tragedy, whether of small or large scale? I have a feeling that Daniel’s parents, Restoring Dignity and Autism Ontario would be singing a different tune – though no less angry or litigious.

I am not ignorant. I know that police officers are only human, that there are good cops and bad cops, that there have been – and will be – many cases of inexcusable police brutality. I know that some officers swagger around with their badge like it lifts them above the law. Bringing those people to accountability is important. But that’s not what happened here. A frightened, confused, disabled nine-year-old – and the people around him – needed to be safe, and the police were there to do it. The groups raising money to bring legal measures against the school and the police should consider putting that money into autism awareness and research, and increasing specially trained school staff numbers. That’s what will really help Daniel.