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.