A rare criminal conviction of a police officer for failing to provide medical help to a dying woman in his custody could be a warning to authorities that they can be held accountable for allowing drug-abuse stereotypes to guide their conduct.
An Ontario judge found Constable Nicholas Doering of the London Police Service guilty of criminal negligence causing death, and failing to provide the “necessaries of life,” in the death of Debralee Chrisjohn in police custody. Criminal negligence causing death carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, and failing to provide the necessaries of life has a top penalty of five years.
Ms. Chrisjohn, who was a member of the Oneida Nation of the Thames, died of a heart attack brought on by methamphetamine use. The 39-year-old Indigenous woman was a mother of 11, and grandmother of three. The criminal convictions Friday of a police officer in her death appear to be the first of their kind in Canada, says Caitlyn Kasper, a lawyer for Aboriginal Legal Services, and legal counsel to the Chrisjohn family.
The justice system and police have been under fire over the value put on Indigenous lives, and on the stereotyping of those who are Indigenous and drug abusers or sex workers. The Supreme Court of Canada warned in a case in August against allowing such stereotypes to go unchallenged.
“It’s no longer acceptable that people who are in vulnerable positions, especially medically vulnerable positions, can be ignored,” Ms. Kasper said in an interview on Sunday.
“It definitely highlights that there is a standard of care that needs to be met by these police officers. And that the stereotypes they’ve been relying on thus far as to who people are – racially, and as addicts – is no longer acceptable.”
Prosecutor Jason Nicol said he is not sure if such criminal convictions involving police are the first of their kind, but “it is extremely rare.”
Either way, with scant precedent, sentencing will break new ground. “All options are open at this stage, including incarceration,” Mr. Nicol said in an e-mail.
The prosecutor had told the family, Ms. Kasper said, that he would seek a tougher sentence if Constable Doering were convicted on both counts, which has now happened. Sentencing is likely still weeks away.
The family is hoping for a jail sentence, her sister, Cindy Chrisjohn, said in an e-mail. She added that Ms. Chrisjohn was an active, family oriented person who, even in her last months, was not like she has been portrayed because of her final two days. “She was loving and full of love,” she said.
Police had received several 911 calls on Sept. 7, 2016, after Ms. Chrisjohn ran into traffic and tried to jump into a van moving along the street. A day earlier, she had been found in the streets, confused and speaking unclearly, and a different London constable had called an ambulance for her. But she’d left hospital against the wishes of medical staff.
Constable Doering detained Ms. Chrisjohn after the 911 calls because the Ontario Provincial Police had put out a warrant for her arrest, for breaching a condition of a previous release from custody. It was then about 5:45 p.m, and he arranged to bring her to OPP officers. Critical to his conviction for criminal negligence causing death was that he told the OPP she had been medically cleared. In fact, though, a paramedic had merely looked in at her through the car windows. Also, during the approximately 45 minutes she was in the back seat of his car while he drove to meet the OPP, her condition deteriorated.
Constable Doering testified that he believed Ms. Chrisjohn just needed to “ride out the high.” His defence lawyer, Lucas O’Hara, argued that the constable had made an error in judgment, a reasonable one in light of his experience with meth users and a conversation he’d had with an emergency-services supervisor while she was detained.
Even when, after the OPP brought Ms. Chrisjohn to the Elgin detachment at 7:11 (video showed officers dragging her limp body along the floor to the cell area), officers believed she was simply being unco-operative. It was not until 7:28, as she lay unconscious in a cell, that the OPP called in a medical emergency – but it told EMS that it was not a major one requiring sirens and lights flashing. She died later that night.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Renee Pomerance pointed in her ruling at the dangers of stereotypes as police officers deal with drug abusers.
Constable Doering “viewed everything, including signs of medical distress, as nothing more than the stereotypical conduct of a drug user,” Justice Pomerance wrote in her ruling.
And while there was no suggestion during the trial that her Indigenous heritage played a role in police decisions involving her, “it has been observed that Indigenous women and girls are particularly vulnerable to stereotyping. This includes stereotypes related to alcohol and drug abuse.” She said Constable Doering had time to save her life by ensuring that she got to a hospital, where her symptoms could have been treated.
Constable Doering had testified that his conduct was not a “marked departure” from the standard of care expected of police officers. He also said that he did not perceive Ms. Chrisjohn to be in serious medical distress. Justice Pomerance accepted that his belief was honestly held, but said he “turned a blind eye to risks” that a reasonably prudent police officer would have seen.