Friday, August 05, 2016
Members of "Justice for Abdirahman" coalition at a press conference at Ottawa City Hall PHOTO: HOL
OTTAWA (HOL) - The ‘Justice for Abdirahman’ coalition, a group formed after the death of Abdirahman Abdi say there is a crisis within the Ottawa Police Service on how it interacts with members of racialized communities.
The group believes that Abdirahman Abdi's death "could and should have been prevented". They suggested a task force be formed to examine "the disproportionate number of black men and people with mental issues who have been killed by police." That was just 1 of 10 recommendations put forward by the group to address the death of Abdirahman Abdi at a news conference at Ottawa city hall.
Abdirahman Abdi, a 37 year old Somali-Canadian died on July 24th after what many witnesses describe as a violent incident with two Ottawa police officers. When many began question if race played a role in the arrest, Matt Skoff, President of the Ottawa Police Association bluntly called the speculation "inappropriate".
However, the coalition insists that race played a key factor in Abdirahman Abdi's death.
“There is a problem, a serious problem,” said Margaret Parsons, with the African Canadian legal Clinic, "Our police officers perceive race to be a threat before all else. Before they saw Mr. Abdi's mental health condition, they saw his skin color first.”
"Why is it when a racialized person is experiencing a mental health crisis and the police are called, the officers' response is to kill? .... The answer is clear: in Mr. Abdi's case as in the others, the real factor was race."
"Mr. Abdi is part of a long list of African Canadian men with mental health differences that have been killed by police." Ms. Parsons read a list of names of other black men with mental health issues who were killed by police.
The death caused outrage and anger from the Somali Canadian community as well as social justice groups. There have been vigils, marches and meetings held in solidarity with Abdi's family in cities across Canada, the latest of which is scheduled for Friday at Daniels Spectrum in Toronto. The vigil is being put together by the local Black Lives Matter chapter.
Speaking on behalf of the coalition, Kamal Abdulhakim said that "the death of Abdirahman Abdi sent a clear message to the citizens of Ottawa, that we may fall victim to police brutality".
During the news conference the coalition criticized the responses of law enforcement and politicians accusing them of being more interested in public relations stunts than addressing the situation. The group singled out Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson in particular for his delayed response. The mayor was on vacation when Abdirahman was killed and did not make a public statement until his funeral.
“It’s clear that the mayor's response is sending a message to black individuals in Ottawa that our lives are not as valuable as others,” said Yamikani Msosa with the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Ottawa.
“If the mayor had any backbone,” added Margaret Parsons, “rather than showing up for a photo op at Mr. Abdi's funeral, he would have arranged through his office a meeting with the Somali community.”
In statement issued on Thursday, the mayor insists that he has reached out the community and that a meeting is to be scheduled at a later date.
“At this early stage, it is essential for us to wait for the SIU’s findings rather than jump to conclusions and contemplate policy changes. I have confidence in the system and I want to let them do their work. Like many in the community, I look forward to seeing the findings of their final report”.
“In the meantime, I have reached out to Ottawa’s faith leaders and representatives of the Somali community and immigrant-support organizations to invite them to meet and discuss the incident and its impact on our residents. At the request of the representatives of the Somali community, this meeting will be held at a later date. I look forward to hearing their thoughts.”
The group put forth a series of recommendations to all three levels of government, the Ottawa Police Service and its board, as well as police oversight agencies like the SIU and the Office of the Independent Police Review Director. According to the group the aim of the recommendation is to adequately address Abdirahman Abdi's death and to prevent subsequent deaths of a similar nature from reoccurring.
The recommendations begin with a call to the Ottawa Police Service to acknowledge that there is a crisis when it comes to how officers deal with members of racialized communities, especially those with mental health issues.
The group calls for the Canadian police to be better trained in deescalation tactics, a recommendation put forth by an Ontario Ombudsman report titled "A Matter of Life and Death".
Justice for Abdirahman would like the government to respond to an Ontario Human Rights Commission assertion that there is "no effective mechanisms to hold police accountable to systemic discrimination," and to remedy this gap.
They also suggest the need for consistent standards Canada wide with regards to training police officers in dealing with those suffering from mental health issues, as referenced in a 2013 report by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
The ask that police officers under investigation for causing death or serious injury to administrative duty. The officers should not be able to interact with members of the community until the investigation is complete.
With regards to the SIU, the oversight agency responsible for investigating the death, the group suggest that they publicize their reports until the agency itself can be reviewed and overhauled to provide a transparent, effective and independent oversight committee.
Kamal Abdulhakim, spokesperson for the group charged that SIU is known to employ former police officers.
"They have a very high exoneration rate and their reports are not really made public. As we saw in the recommendations, there needs to be a much more robust, transparent, effective and independent mechanism to investigate police officers who cause death or serious injury to civilians."
The group would also like to see the implementation of body cameras to be worn by police officers and for their vehicles be fitted for cameras as well.