The Ottawa Police: A Police Service in Crisis

The recent death of Abdirahman Abdi by two Ottawa Police officers is a huge stain on the City of Ottawa. Why is it that the Ottawa Police were not able to arrest an unarmed man without killing him?  There is no logical or rational explanation to account for this man’s death.  The reaction by the public to Mr. Abdi’s death is not surprising and it raises serious questions in this City about the quality of our police service.

The Ottawa Police Service is a police service that is wracked by scandal and serious trust and credibility issues.  For example, you have Charles Bordeleau the Chief of Police facing an investigation alleging that he interfered in a court case involving his father-in-law who was being prosecuted for a traffic violation. Then you have a myriad of police officers being charged for a variety of offences ranging from fixing tickets, impaired driving, fraud and countless other offences that defy logic.

Just recently Cst Todd Sheppard, who has been an Ottawa Police officer since 1998, was demoted for one year by a police tribunal after he was found guilty of discreditable conduct under the Police Services Act of Ontario for attempting to defraud a Canadian Tire Store. The officer admitted to switching price tags on an expensive hiking bag at a Canadian Tire Store when he was on duty.  He entered the Canadian Tire Store on Merivale Road on February 24, 2016 wearing plain clothes and purchased a high-end hiking bag valued at approximately $150 and then attempted to register it as only $20 at the cash.  What is remarkable is that instead of charging Cst Todd under the Criminal Code of Canada with the crime of theft, the Ottawa Police Service decided not to lay criminal charges.

On July 6, 2016 I wrote to my City Councillor Keith Egli and asked him to get answers for me to a number of troubling questions which included the following:  Is a police officer who is found guilty of theft allowed to continue policing in this City with the power to lay charges against other people who are accused of theft?  How come people who have a conviction under the Criminal Code of Canada cannot join the Ottawa Police Service but once they are police officers they can commit a range of criminal offences and still continue working as police officers?  Why is it that a citizen who committed exactly the same offence as Constable Todd would likely be charged with theft or fraud under the Criminal Code of Canada while Cst Todd avoided a criminal charge?  What reasoning did the Ottawa Police Service provide to the public regarding their decision not to lay criminal charges against Cst Todd. Finally, how many other sweetheart deals has the Ottawa Police Service entered into with other police officers in their employ who have committed crimes so that they will avoid the possibility of a criminal conviction?

Perhaps I expect too much from my City Councillor but I thought that by writing to Keith Egli he might actually raise the issue with the media and start demanding some answers to my questions from the Chief of Police and the Ottawa Police Services Board.  After all, we as citizens pay for policing and when the police deliberately flout the very law they are charged to uphold we have every right to raise these questions no matter how uncomfortable they may be with our elected representatives.  What we don’t expect is that our elected politicians will sit back and do and say nothing to address the problem.  It is this very indifference and apathy that contributes to a dysfunctional police service. Following the death of Mr. Abdi I asked a class that I am teaching of second and third year criminology students at Carleton University to indicate with a show of hands just how many trust the Ottawa Police Service.  Sadly but not unexpectedly, not one student put up their hand.

The reality is that It’s going to take more than tinkering with the police tool kit by adding body cameras and other devices to fix the problems with policing in Ottawa.  We need a fundamental and transformative cultural change to policing attitudes and practices.  There have been innumerable reports in this province calling for a major transmogrification of the training program for police so that its focus becomes service rather than law enforcement oriented.  Criminological research reveals that police spend less than twenty percent of their time dealing with matters related to crime and eighty percent of their time dealing with order maintenance functions.  The training police receive is backwards with 80% focused on firearms competency, tactical training, use of force scenarios and only 20% on what they actually do on the streets.  Even the recent report out of the Ombudsman’s office stated that recruits spend far too much of their time training with guns and not enough on how to use their mouths.

Problems with policing are the product of lousy police leadership, inadequate training, poor communications training, ignorance of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and police arrogance by some officers that borders on the abnormal. You have some officers in this City running around conducting themselves like characters out of the television show Miami Vice.  The uniform they wear makes them look like they are going to war.  It is evident that they haven’t got a clue how to relate to the community.  For starters, officers should be banned from wearing sun-glasses as this simply reinforces a robotic and Neanderthal attitude that destroys the relationship between the police and the public.

Just recently a student told me that when he was at the opticians buying glasses that he noticed a man trying on different pairs of sun-glasses and looking at himself in the mirror.  The man asked my student which of the sun-glasses he was trying on made him look more aggressive.  When my student asked why he needed to look aggressive the man replied that he just joined the Ottawa Police Service.  The fact that police administrators in this City don’t understand this fact but my students do is amazing.

The recent court decision sentencing Cst James Forcillo to six years in prison for the shooting death of Sammy Yatim in Toronto was a good day for justice in Ontario.  The more the courts hold police accountable for breaking the law and send them to prison the more police officers will comply with the law.  The current oversight mechanisms such as the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) and the Office of the Independent Police Directorate (OIPRD) should be abolished and replaced with a truly independent and impartial organization that does ‘not’ have ex cops in its employ.  Both the SIU and the OIPRD are not trusted by the public in Ontario when it comes to holding police officers accountable for their actions.

unnamedFinally, one thing is absolutely clear from the death of Abdirahman Abdi. The Ottawa Police Service has learned absolutely nothing since they botched and bungled the arrest of a young woman in the market several years ago. Some people could argue that the Mayor and Councillors should be held directly accountable for the policing crisis in this City because by failing to take action to fix the problem they have directly contributed to the appalling state of what is now the Ottawa Police Service.

Written by: Darryl T Davies