Nearly seven years after the body of an Indigenous man was found face down on a Northern Ontario riverbank, a Thunder Bay police officer has pleaded guilty to neglect of duty in the subsequent investigation into the death.
Thunder Bay Police Service Staff Sergeant Shawn Harrison and Sergeant Shawn Whipple were both charged under the Police Services Act after a public complaint to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, or OIPRD, in 2016. Staff Sgt. Harrison pleaded not guilty to another charge, of discreditable conduct, at a disciplinary hearing that started Monday in Thunder Bay. Sgt. Whipple faces the same two charges and pleaded not guilty to both.
The original complaint was made by former Rainy River Chief Jim Leonard and Brad DeBungee, the brother of the victim, 41-year old Stacy DeBungee. The OIPRD investigated in 2016 and determined there were substantial deficiencies in how the officers handled the case.
At the time of Mr. DeBungee’s death, Staff Sgt. Harrison was a detective constable in charge of the criminal investigations branch and Sgt. Whipple was a detective in the same unit. The two investigators were assigned to Mr. DeBungee’s case when his body was found on the morning of Oct. 19, 2015.
As noted in a 21-page agreed statement of facts, read Monday at the disciplinary hearing, Staff Sgt. Harrison had determined within a few hours there were no signs of foul play and approved a press release saying the death wasn’t suspicious, without conducting an investigation or positively identifying Mr. DeBungee, before an autopsy had been performed. A witness had also told officers he saw two Indigenous men fighting at the riverbank the night before.
Staff Sgt. Harrison pleaded guilty based on his failure to speak with the private investigator hired by Mr. DeBungee’s family following his death, according to the statement of facts.
The family hired private investigator David Perry a month after Mr. DeBungee’s death, concerned he may have been killed. They felt investigators weren’t taking the case seriously. Staff Sgt. Harrison told them the coroner didn’t believe there was foul play involved and that it was possible he passed out, rolled down the riverbank and drowned.
The coroner’s report said Mr. DeBungee’s cause of death was freshwater drowning and that alcohol intoxication was a significant contributor, but didn’t cause the drowning.
According to the statement of facts, Staff Sgt. Harrison told the OIPRD in its complaint investigation that he didn’t follow major case management policy in Mr. DeBungee’s case because it didn’t fall within the major case model.
Prosecutor Joël Dubois argued that based on the initial information available to Staff Sgt. Harrison and Sgt. Whipple – including a body in water with no visible or clear signs of external trauma, the coroner’s indication an autopsy would be conducted, and a possible witness who had come forward – the death should have been treated as a major case.
Former deputy chief Andrew Hay agreed, testifying Monday that Mr. DeBungee’s case should have been investigated as a potential homicide according to the available information and the service’s criminal investigation management plan policy.
“It would remain a suspicious death at that point,” said Mr. Hay, adding that foul play shouldn’t have been ruled out.
Mr. Hay took Staff Sgt. Harrison and Sgt. Whipple off Mr. DeBungee’s case following the OIPRD complaint.
The DeBungee case prompted the OIPRD to investigate the entire Thunder Bay Police Service for how it deals with Indigenous people. A 2018 report titled Broken Trust revealed that “systemic racism exists within the Thunder Bay Police Service at an institutional level” and it recommended the reinvestigation of nine sudden deaths of Indigenous people.
In 2015, a coroner’s inquest had just begun into other Thunder Bay deaths when Mr. DeBungee’s body was found. That inquest looked at the deaths of seven First Nations students, five of whom were found in city rivers like Mr. DeBungee.
During his testimony, Mr. Hay told Asha James, a lawyer with Falconers LLP representing the DeBungee family, that he was aware of the concerns from the Indigenous community during the inquest that officers were prematurely concluding sudden deaths as non-criminal or not suspicious.
Ms. James said it’s clear the investigators had already made up their mind about what happened to Mr. DeBungee without gathering any evidence.
“They didn’t do an investigation to determine whether or not it was homicide. They didn’t even do an investigation to support their own assumptions about the cause of death,” she said.
Last year, the Ontario Provincial Police opened its own investigation into Mr. DeBungee’s death, after a request from the provincial attorney-general.
Brad DeBungee said on Monday he’s happy to see the officers being held accountable for their actions and is hoping it leads to better investigative practices, especially with how Indigenous people are policed in the Thunder Bay. He has also called for the dismantling of the service. “It’s time for change,” he said.
The disciplinary hearing, scheduled to take three weeks, continues.
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