More than a year after a provincial watchdog heavily criticized police in Thunder Bay for systemic racism and “broken trust” with Indigenous people, a review of the force’s progress has found some strides – and a long way to go.
The update from Ontario’s Office of the Independent Police Review Director assesses the work police have done to implement the OIPRD’s 44 recommendations from a December, 2018, report on law enforcement in the city – and shows the force has fully implemented only a handful.
But as critics question the pace of reform from the police department, the report points to signs of progress in a city that is trying to overcome its reputation for dysfunction and racial discrimination.
The report says about a dozen times that it is “premature” to comment on the steps police have taken or how effective they have been. But Sylvana Capogreco, the former interim director of the OIPRD and author of the study, said the force has worked on all 44 calls to action.
“It would be great if all of them could’ve been done, but there is a recognition that, even in the initial report ‘Broken Trust,’ that progress would take some time,” said Ms. Capogreco. “It’s premature for me and for the office to say that not enough work has been done."
The assessment follows a tumultuous period for policing in Thunder Bay. Activists and government oversight bodies began investigating the force after a decade in which several Indigenous people were found dead in the city’s waterways. The 2018 OIPRD report came out within days of a parallel probe by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission that stripped the city’s civilian police board of power for failing to address the racism faced by local Indigenous people.
Wednesday’s report was released only one week after the city’s two-term mayor and former police officer Keith Hobbs was found not guilty of extortion. Mr. Hobbs’s wife, Marisa Hobbs, and third party, Mary Voss, were also found not guilty in the case.
Thunder Bay police have taken some concrete action on the OIPRD recommendations. The force has created a Major Crimes Unit, and are changing their recruiting process to attract more Indigenous people, women, and visible minorities. The force is also in the midst of a year-long effort to reinvestigate the deaths of nine Indigenous people, where the original investigations were insufficient – one of the watchdog’s top recommendations. A multidisciplinary team is slated to finish the new investigations by July, 2020.
For some Indigenous people in Thunder Bay, however, progress from the police has been hard to see. Tanaya Tomagatick, who also goes by her traditional name Ditibisekwanikwad, said she feels as though Thunder Bay police have not “made any progress whatsoever” in the past year. She said they should have been more involved in community activities.
The 23-year-old Lakehead University student said she was the victim of police abuse when she was a teen – an officer “manhandled and body-slammed” her at a party, she alleged, fracturing one of her fingers – and she has difficulty trusting members of the force, whatever the OIPRD might say.
“They have a really bad reputation of discrimination against Indigenous people, so it’s hard to build relationships with them,” said Ms. Tomagatick.
Former head of the OIPRD Gerry McNeilly, who authored the “Broken Trust” report, also criticized Thunder Bay police this week for being slow to decide whether to reinvestigate the 2015 death of Stacy DeBungee, a 41-year-old man from Rainy River First Nations.
The force has said it will not move on the file until after the conclusion of disciplinary proceedings against the original investigating officers, which are tied up in a legal dispute. Mr. McNeilly argued that there is no legal reason why Mr. DeBungee’s death cannot be reinvestigated immediately.
“The DeBungee matter bothers me,” he said. “I see no reason why the reinvestigation of Mr. DeBungee’s death cannot be proceeded with.”
The former watchdog also took issue with the delay of the Thunder Bay police to create a protocol for identifying whether other sudden-death cases – in addition to the nine deaths – warrant reinvestigation. This week the OIPRD report said that “the implementation of this recommendation comes with a sense of urgency.”
Police spokesperson Chris Adams, who declined requests for an interview this week, wrote in an e-mail that the protocol will be developed in the course of reinvestigating the nine death cases.
“As the latest report from the OIPRD has stated, we are moving in the right direction,” Mr. Adams wrote. “Systemic change does not happen overnight.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.