DOES THE OT­TAWA PO­LICE SER­VICE HAVE A RACE PROB­LEM?

Ottawa Magazine - - NEWS - BY JUDY TRINH PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY TONY FOUHSE

JUDY TRINH talks to four Ot­tawans about why they lost trust in the Ot­tawa Po­lice Ser­vice, as well as to Chief Charles Borde­leau

AF­TER A SO­MALI CANA­DIAN died while in po­lice cus­tody last sum­mer, sim­mer­ing racial ten­sions boiled over. In Oc­to­ber, data col­lected over two years backed up claims that racial pro­fil­ing hap­pens on Ot­tawa streets. Then, as the city mourned Inuk artist An­nie Pootoo­gook, a racist com­ment on­line — made by an of­fi­cer — served as a light­ning rod, caus­ing pub­lic out­cry.

In this pro­file series, Judy Trinh hears from four peo­ple about why they lost trust in the Ot­tawa Po­lice Ser­vice. She also talks to Chief Charles Borde­leau, who lives on the ra­zor’s edge, bal­anc­ing his role as a leader of the trou­bled force with his power to turn the tide.

For more than a decade, FARHIA AHMED, 37, had adopted the stance of an in­formed but quiet pub­lic ser­vant. Although Mus­lim, she mar­ried into a Catholic fam­ily. A mother of four chil­dren, her days were more con­sumed by her chil­dren’s sched­ules than so­cial ac­tivism. She had a se­cure job in Vet­er­ans Af­fairs and, as a pol­icy ad­viser, clung tightly to bu­reau­cratic neu­tral­ity. She may have felt strongly about an is­sue, but you wouldn’t hear her give an opin­ion. Then Ab­di­rah­man Abdi hap­pened. Af­ter watch­ing videos of Abdi’s fa­tal ar­rest, Ahmed could no longer stand on the side­lines. At a stand­ing-room-only com­mu­nity meet­ing of So­mali Cana­di­ans who gath­ered to form a new ad­vo­cacy group, Ahmed raised her hand and vol­un­teered to raise her voice so that Abdi’s fam­ily could be heard.

I have a high stan­dard for our pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions and for peo­ple in uni­form. I’m a pub­lic ser­vant. I’ve come to re­spect them a lot. But what I saw was pure vile and com­pletely un­ex­pected. And the fact that there was a de­bate about the cir­cum­stances up­set me.

This is an in­jus­tice to all of the com­mu­nity, be­cause we are all tax­pay­ers in this city. Ev­ery­body has the re­spon­si­bil­ity to have a voice, through their elected of­fi­cials, to say or do some­thing when some­thing like this oc­curs. They are sworn of­fi­cers. This is a breach in trust — be­cause you swear to serve and pro­tect, and that’s the op­po­site of what took place here.

The first few months [af­ter Abdi’s death] pro­vided me a wake-up call that I never thought I needed. There is a sense of fear when you see an of­fi­cer be­have in such a way that seems tar­geted. I’m part of that tar­get. I’m clearly a Black woman. That could be me. That could be my brother.

I don’t think the po­lice force is racist, but it al­lows racist in­di­vid­u­als and ac­tions to reign. And there needs to be a hard line, zero tol­er­ance with th­ese is­sues. Some things have been re­vealed since Abdi’s death. One of the of­fi­cers in ques­tion, it’s not the first time he was rough­ing up a Black male So­mali per­son. His judg­ment has been called into ques­tion by a judge in a court of law.

I think it’s a prob­lem with th­ese of­fi­cers, and the prob­lem with the es­tab­lish­ment is al­low­ing of­fi­cers like this to con­tinue with­out rep­ri­mand.

There is a verse in the Qu­ran that says some­thing like “You must stand firmly against jus­tice even if it is against our­selves.” It means there is a recog­ni­tion that hu­man be­ings make mis­takes and we need to be called to ac­count for them, even if it is against our­selves, so there’s an op­por­tu­nity to make it right.

RAPHAEL DESIL, 35, works in an auto-body shop by day. By night, he’s bet­ter known as Moun Fou, a hip-hop artist who raps about his past as a drug dealer. Through his mu­sic, he hopes to de­ter young peo­ple from en­ter­ing “the game.” One of his most re­cent videos, for the song “Sum­mer­time,” was shot in Low­er­town, where he “made his first $10,000.” As an ex-con who has done his time and is try­ing to move on with his life, Desil feels he’s treated like an of­fender when he in­ter­acts with po­lice — and he has fig­ured out a clever way of pro­tect­ing him­self: he calls the cops to pro­tect him­self from the cops.

When you live in the projects, in low­in­come hous­ing, you see the ones ris­ing up and mak­ing fast money, and you start to shift to be like them.

Co­caine and crack co­caine, that’s what’s sold by Black peo­ple in the poorer ar­eas of the city. The peo­ple who use that prod­uct, they’re stressed, and you have to be able to deal with that. The crack­heads will knock on your door at 3 a.m. They’re heavy char­ac­ters, and you have to roll with a cer­tain in­ten­sity.

I was kind of a flashy drug dealer — I had the gold teeth and the chains.

I re­spected the rules. I never dou­ble­crossed any­body. Never shorted any­body, and I never rat­ted any­body to get less time. I could have got free if I gave up some­one with a gun.

My mom told me, “When I heard you got ar­rested, my heart stopped wor­ry­ing be­cause I knew you were safe. I knew you could fight, you’re six-foot-one. There are no guns, no knives.” I did six months here, four months there. I got a long rap sheet, but it’s just drugs, just pos­ses­sion and traf­fick­ing. I never had vi­o­lence. The long­est time I did was 23 months. Good thing about it was I got my high school di­ploma in jail.

I got out in 2012. Now I work at an au­to­body shop on Innes Road. We’re work­ing on re­fur­bish­ing OC Transpo buses.

I’ve been to at least 20 fu­ner­als. I’ve seen a lot of young kids go. Some of them didn’t re­spect the rules, got in­volved at the wrong time. Some­times it’s an ac­ci­dent. Some­times it’s friends against friends. I had to moon­walk my­self out of that.

I want to tell peo­ple to get out of the cy­cle. There are cer­tain women who’ve been in my life who be­came ad­dicts — and I was the one sell­ing to them. That hurts.

But since I’m out, it’s like po­lice treat me even worse. When you’re a Black male and you’re walk­ing alone, run­ning into a cop who wants to check you … that’s the scari­est thing. “Why do you want to talk to a Black guy walk­ing down the road? You’re search­ing for more trou­ble than me.”

I have to know ev­ery rea­son why they want my name. To give my name to a cop, I know he’s go­ing to type it in and see who I am. No pos­i­tiv­ity will come out in his com­puter. That’s what scares me, even though my last con­vic­tion was in 2009.

As soon as they see that, they’ll treat me dif­fer­ently. Their hands will be on their hol­ster. I can see the whole trans­for­ma­tion be­fore they come out of the car. I can see their train­ing. I can see how they dou­ble-check their guns while they get out of the car. They’re go­ing to think I’m just a gang­ster.

So when I get stopped when I’m by my­self on the street, I call 911 and tell the op­er­a­tor, “I feel like I’m in dan­ger.” I give my in­ter­sec­tion and an­other cop shows up and I’m like “You bet­ter pro­tect me. I don’t want [the other cop] to shoot me be­cause I’m a known drug dealer.”

They al­ready killed an un­armed Black man. And who killed him? It was a guy who worked in the DART [anti-gang] unit.

They [cops] don’t see me as the per­son that I am right now. Maybe in 20 years they might be­lieve.

KET­CIA PETERS, 37 , knows what it’s like to live on the wrong side of the tracks. As a teenager, she lived in com­mu­nity hous­ing on Ritchie Street and was evicted when her mother was un­able to pay the bills. Peters even­tu­ally be­came the parental fig­ure, help­ing to raise her sis­ters while jug­gling school and wait­ress­ing. Her re­ward came years later in the form of a di­ploma from the busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­gram at Al­go­nquin Col­lege. Now, the proud Haitian Cana­dian is the new cit­i­zen co-chair of the Com­mu­nity and Po­lice Ac­tion Com­mit­tee (COMPAC). It’s her job to break down walls be­tween po­lice and the pub­lic, and to make sure vis­i­ble mi­nori­ties are re­spected for who they are, not judged by where they’re from.

As the city comes to grips with the find­ings of the re­cent Traf­fic Stop Race Data Col­lec­tion Project, which shows Mid­dle Eastern and Black driv­ers are stopped dis­pro­por­tion­ately by po­lice, Peters will help every­one rec­og­nize racial pro­fil­ing and how to change po­lice cul­ture.

There’s a lot of work that needs to be done for [vis­i­ble mi­nori­ties] to feel po­lice are there to serve them, to help them.

A Black per­son in so­cial hous­ing is treated much dif­fer­ently. If a po­lice of­fi­cer is pa­trolling around Or­leans, where there is a con­cen­trated group of Haitian pro­fes­sion­als liv­ing, [the po­lice] will ex­plain why they’re pulling them over and will re­spect their rights as cit­i­zens and give them the info they need. But that same of­fi­cer could be pa­trolling the Vanier area and they just drive by and park their car next to a young per­son wear­ing a cer­tain type of cloth­ing, with hair worn a cer­tain way, and it would be dif­fer­ent.

This is the tes­ti­mony I hear: “I was just in my car eat­ing pizza, wait­ing to go into the bar­ber­shop where I work, but the po­lice said, ‘If I were to shake you down, would I find drugs, would I find weed?’ ” Their de­meanour is of­fen­sive and ac­cusatory.

Th­ese in­di­vid­u­als feel like their rights are vi­o­lated. They are ap­par­ently be­ing stopped and ques­tioned for no rea­son.

I’ve seen how po­lice of­fi­cers in­ter­act with a Black male who fits their stereo­type of a bad per­son. They’re not in­volved in crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity, but they live in a cer­tain neigh­bour­hood or they know a cer­tain per­son be­cause they grew up with them. Some of them are go­ing to school, work­ing to­ward good jobs, but they’ll be treated like crim­i­nals be­cause they wear a cer­tain type of clothes or wear their hair a cer­tain way.

It’s racial pro­fil­ing.

When the [Traf­fic Stop Race Data Col­lec­tion] project came out — it was an­a­lyzed by an ob­jec­tive third party, York Univer­sity — it gave a re­sult about the over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of mi­nori­ties dur­ing traf­fic stops. It’s writ­ten in black and white. And the re­fusal of po­lice to ad­mit that’s racial pro­fil­ing is a big gap. We need to start ad­mit­ting things in or­der to cre­ate change. If you don’t rec­og­nize the prob­lem, you can’t fix it.

We have ques­tions about the type of of­fi­cers who would come to the calls. The of­fi­cers who came to the [Abdi 911] call didn’t know the neigh­bour­hood. That’s why com­mu­nity po­lice of­fi­cers are re­ally im­por­tant. They would know the com­mu­nity. They would know he was suf­fer­ing from men­tal-health is­sues.

I think there needs to be a change in the po­lice cul­ture — the way they think, the way they see the com­mu­nity. They’re in­volved in the worst sce­nar­ios in life, so they may have a cer­tain prej­u­dice when they go to work. For ex­am­ple, when there’s shoot­ings, in­creas­ing pa­trols may not be the an­swer.

When there is over-pa­trolling of one area, those com­mu­ni­ties feel like they are be­ing oc­cu­pied.

How can you trust if you’re oc­cu­pied?

It was a racist Face­book post linked to an Ot­tawa Cit­i­zen story that VEL­DON COBURN, 39, couldn’t ig­nore. It was posted by Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar, an Ot­tawa po­lice of­fi­cer who sug­gested the death of Inuk artist An­nie Pootoo­gook could have been “sui­cide, ac­ci­den­tal, she got drunk and fell in the river and drowned” be­cause “much of the Abo­rig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion in Canada is just sat­is­fied be­ing drug abusers.” Coburn wasn’t just of­fended, he was deeply wounded. Pootoo­gook was also the bi­o­log­i­cal mother of his adopted daugh­ter, Na­pachie, the four-year-old sit­ting qui­etly on his lap.

She was in the back of my mind as I thought, should I say some­thing? If she [Na­pachie] would look back and knew I saw the ar­ti­cle and said noth­ing? Would she ask, “Why didn’t you say any­thing?” It was more painful be­cause it was a po­lice of­fi­cer. I hold po­lice of­fi­cers in high re­gard. It wasn’t some­one talk­ing from a bar stool that you could walk away from and say “racist id­iot.” And it was an open case too. An­nie had a trou­bled ex­is­tence, and I thought, th­ese are the peo­ple who are sup­posed to pro­tect her?

So on a Sun­day night at 10:30 p.m., I sent an email to [OPS chief Charles] Borde­leau. I copied Mayor [Jim] Wat­son, MPs Jody Wil­son-Ray­bould and Carolyn Ben­nett, Ot­tawa Cit­i­zen re­porter Joanne Lau­cius, and Jorge Bar­rera of the Abo­rig­i­nal Peo­ple’s Tele­vi­sion Net­work. To his credit, the chief emailed me back within an hour, and I thought, wow, he takes it se­ri­ously. Then he floun­dered.

I heard Chief Borde­leau on CBC’s Ot­tawa Morn­ing, and he re­fused to call the com­ments racist — in­stead he used the term “racial un­der­tones.” I think Charles Borde­leau is an hon­ourable man. He holds a dis­tin­guished po­si­tion in his home­town, but this can tar­nish his le­gacy.

We trust you [the chief] to say the words. To say what it is. We trust you to rec­og­nize th­ese things. When hate crimes are mo­ti­vated by hate and racism, if you can’t iden­tify it in this sit­u­a­tion, how can we trust you to iden­tify Joe Blow who pulls a hate crime against Mus­lims or any other vis­i­ble mi­nor­ity? That shakes my foun­da­tion and my trust.

But I don’t think Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar is a racist. I think he’s a cop who made racist com­ments.

At his first hear­ing, he pleads guilty right away. He im­me­di­ately ac­knowl­edged the wrong com­mit­ted and made a heart­felt apol­ogy to An­nie Pootoo­gook and her fam­ily. I never had any­one apol­o­gize to me be­fore. It takes a great deal of hu­mil­ity and a big per­son on such a pub­lic scale to apol­o­gize. You don’t hear that from po­lice of­fi­cers. You don’t hear con­tri­tion.

There is a cau­tion­ary tale to this. When I see th­ese ideas tossed around about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion th­ese days, the vic­tims say, “Ac­count for your sins, take your lash­ings.” But if you’re go­ing to de­mand a restora­tive sys­tem of jus­tice, there’s also an onus on you. It’s not a sole bur­den.

I did write him [Hrnchiar] a let­ter and told him I wanted to work to­ward this. Chris and I both rec­og­nize that Indige­nous and non-Indige­nous peo­ple are go­ing to have to work to­gether if we want things to be dif­fer­ent for our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. That’s what rec­on­cil­i­a­tion will take, and I think he, as a po­lice of­fi­cer, can play an im­por­tant role in that process.

I was lis­ten­ing to a song re­cently by the band U2. It was the song “One.” There is a line in that song that con­jured some im­agery for me about the in­creased bur­den of the pain of seek­ing for­give­ness when it is made dif­fi­cult to ob­tain: “You ask me to en­ter but then you make me crawl.”

I’m not go­ing to do that to Chris. I’m not go­ing to make him crawl for our grand­chil­dren and for our fu­ture.

In 2012, when CHARLES BORDE­LEAU was sworn in as the chief of the Ot­tawa Po­lice Ser­vice at city hall, crown at­tor­neys in the court­room next door were out­lin­ing their mur­der case against a cop killer. The mur­der of Const. Eric Czap­nik in 2009 had brought into sharp fo­cus the dan­ger of polic­ing, and the com­mu­nity re­sponded with an over­whelm­ing out­pour­ing of grat­i­tude. Five years af­ter be­ing sworn in, things have changed. The wave of pub­lic sup­port is re­ced­ing af­ter an­other death — and this time, po­lice might be cul­pa­ble.

Ab­di­rah­man Abdi, a 37-year-old So­mali Cana­dian, died last July af­ter be­ing cor­nered by po­lice at the en­trance to his Hilda Street apart­ment build­ing. Res­i­dents of the build­ing say they saw Abdi pep­per-sprayed and beaten with ba­tons. One says she watched his mother wail­ing from be­hind the glass lobby doors, her son ly­ing mo­tion­less on the con­crete. What be­gan as a po­lice re­sponse to a 911 call about a man grop­ing a woman in­side a cof­fee shop had ended with Abdi hand­cuffed with his arms be­hind his back. He was bleed­ing, and his shirt was stained with blood. Two con­sta­bles crouched over him — the one with the tat­too sleeve worked with the Guns and Gangs Unit.

“I feel ter­ri­ble for the fam­ily. I feel ter­ri­ble for the of­fi­cers in­volved. No­body comes to work want­ing this to hap­pen,” says Borde­leau, who has been walk­ing on eggshells since, try­ing to re­spond to pub­lic anger with­out los­ing the con­fi­dence of his team.

That anger drove sev­eral hundred pro­test­ers to march to the El­gin Street po­lice head­quar­ters in the week af­ter Abdi’s death to de­mand ac­count­abil­ity.

“My of­fi­cers need sup­port through that dif­fi­cult event. It’s tough for of­fi­cers to be at a demon­stra­tion and to be called mur­der­ers,” said Borde­leau with­out hes­i­ta­tion. “My pri­or­ity is to let my of­fi­cers know they are be­ing sup­ported.”

Two of­fi­cers, con­sta­bles Dave Weir and Daniel Mont­sion, are cur­rently un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion for their role in Abdi’s death. It could take the Spe­cial In­ves­ti­ga­tions Unit more than a year to de­ter­mine whether charges are war­ranted. And un­til the SIU is fin­ished, the force can­not con­duct its own in­ves­ti­ga­tion and must re­strict con­tact with the vic­tim’s fam­ily.

It is un­der th­ese cir­cum­stances that the chief must re­build pub­lic trust; he must ad­dress con­cerns with­out hav­ing the full pic­ture of what went wrong dur­ing the ar­rest. But that lim­i­ta­tion hasn’t stopped pu­bic pres­sure to call out the per­ceived racist na­ture of the ar­rest — a step Borde­leau has so far re­fused to take: “Was race a fac­tor? I don’t know. I don’t have the facts. But I ac­knowl­edge the event caused racial ten­sions.”

To ease those ten­sions, OPS cre­ated a five-mem­ber li­ai­son team to re­pair re­la­tion­ships with the city’s com­mu­nity of vis­i­ble mi­nori­ties. In a move that was crit­i­cized by some within his own force, Borde­leau also per­son­ally in­ter­vened to hire a So­mali Cana­dian the day af­ter Abdi’s death. The force now has six So­mali of­fi­cers, but the de­mo­graph­ics of the OPS still falls short of re­flect­ing the city’s pop­u­la­tion: a cen­sus con­ducted in 2012 found that only 8.4 per­cent of sworn of­fi­cers were vis­i­ble mi­nori­ties.

Along with com­mit­ting to hir­ing di­ver­sity, Borde­leau has also or­dered a race au­dit of the OPS to an­a­lyze the bar­ri­ers vis­i­blemi­nor­ity of­fi­cers face in the work­place. The chief says he will make the re­sults of the au­dit pub­lic when it’s com­pleted.

Abdi’s bru­tal death brought to the sur­face racial ten­sions that have long been per­co­lat­ing in the city. A hu­man-rights com­plaint filed in 2005 led to a com­pre­hen­sive study of traf­fic stops made by Ot­tawa po­lice. The study, re­leased last fall, an­a­lyzed more than 80,000 traf­fic stops and found that Mid­dle Eastern and Black driv­ers were dis­pro­por­tion­ately stopped. Now that ap­prox­i­mately 1,400 OPS of­fi­cers have gone through man­dated street-check train­ing, Borde­leau ex­pects a drop in com­plaints about ar­bi­trary card­ing and traf­fic stops.

Much of the racial ten­sion that has arisen over the past year stems from the per­cep­tion that the force is slow or un­will­ing to ad­dress racism. That was most glar­ing in Borde­leau’s han­dling of an of­fi­cer’s Face­book com­ments about the death of Inuk artist An­nie Pootoo­gook.

In an in­ter­view with CBC’s Ot­tawa Morn­ing, the chief ini­tially called the com­ments, which im­plied that Indige­nous peo­ple were prone to drunk­en­ness or sui­cide, “in­ap­pro­pri­ate” and “bi­ased” and twisted him­self into a rhetor­i­cal knot to avoid us­ing the word “racist.” He would fi­nally call Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar’s com­ment racist — two weeks later in an in­ter­view with the Abo­rig­i­nal Peo­ple’s Tele­vi­sion Net­work. But by then the dam­age was done.

“I re­gret that in­ter­view with CBC that morn­ing. If I were to do it again, I would have come out sooner and called it what it was,” Borde­leau said in an in­ter­view.

The ac­knowl­edge­ment that racism was present in that Face­book post holds power. It has al­ready set the ground­work for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the city’s Inuit com­mu­nity.

Racism may be im­pos­si­ble to prove in Abdi’s death, but what does ex­ist is se­cu­rity-cam­era footage that cap­tures the bru­tal­ity of the take­down from start to fin­ish. That video is in the hands of the SIU. How the chief re­sponds to the re­sults of the SIU in­ves­ti­ga­tion, what ac­tions he takes, and what words he chooses might de­ter­mine his le­gacy — and will cer­tainly af­fect the way mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties, and those who care about equal­ity, feel about their city.

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