The lead investigator in a 2015 sudden-death investigation has been found guilty of neglect of duty and discreditable conduct in a case that brought systemic racism within the Thunder Bay Police Service to the forefront as the force continues to grapple with upheaval. A second officer was found not guilty on both counts.
In his 119-page decision published on the Falconers Law website Wednesday, adjudicator Greg Walton said Staff Sergeant Shawn Harrison failed to treat Stacy DeBungee’s death equally to other cases, discriminating against the 51-year-old Indigenous man because of an unconscious bias.
The decision follows a disciplinary hearing last month in Thunder Bay where both Staff Sgt. Harrison and Sergeant Shawn Whipple testified.
Staff Sgt. Harrison had pleaded guilty to the neglect-of-duty charge specifically for failing to meet with a private investigator hired by the DeBungee family, and not guilty to discreditable conduct.
Sgt. Whipple pleaded not guilty to both charges.
Mr. Walton said unlike Sgt. Harrison, who was leading the investigation, Sgt. Whipple wasn’t duty-bound and not in a position of responsibility.
“I find the evidence overwhelmingly supports the assertion that Staff Sergeant Harrison held a duty and failed to perform that duty without lawful excuse,” reads the decision. “The extent of that negligence exceeds that of a mere performance issue.”
Brad DeBungee, Stacy’s brother, and Jim Leonard, the former chief of Rainy River First Nation where the DeBungee family is from, filed public complaints to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director in 2016. This was several months after Mr. DeBungee’s death and little action from the local police.
Allegations of misconduct against lead detective Staff Sgt. Harrison included: not following major-case management; prematurely concluding the death as non-suspicious without any evidence; approving a media release that stated death was non criminal and no foul play suspected; failing to formally interview witnesses; and not reviewing relevant reports. Sgt. Whipple faced the same allegations as a responding officer.
Staff Sgt. Harrison testified in the hearing that he theorized and communicated to the family, before an autopsy was conducted, that Mr. DeBungee was likely intoxicated and had passed out and rolled into the river, two days after his body was discovered on Oct. 19, 2015.
Mr. Walton stated in his decision that he could not understand how Staff Sgt. Harrison had concluded so quickly that alcohol was a factor in Mr. DeBungee’s death when there was no evidence of consumption at the scene. He said there was no doubt Staff Sgt. Harrison decided early on that the death was non-suspicious.
“I am equally convinced that because the deceased person was Indigenous, found in a river where other Indigenous men had been found drowned, with a high level of alcohol in their system, he assumed the very same circumstances must have therefore existed in this case.”
He said Staff Sgt. Harrison should have been aware of his bias and misconduct, calling his investigation shoddy and less than substandard from the beginning for not following basic police work.
“Staff Sergeant Harrison testified that he always held out that the matter could be suspicious in nature, but if there was truth to that assertion, his investigation would have reflected it. Instead, he did not treat the sudden death of Stacey DeBungee as a potential homicide. He failed to take the necessary and obvious steps to conduct a thorough sudden-death investigation to such an extent, that it amounted to neglect of duty.”
Mr. Walton said there were no explanations to account for the failings in this case.
“The failure to conduct an adequate investigation including the premature conclusion that the death was non-suspicious is, at least in part, attributable to an unconscious bias.”
Asha James, lawyer for the DeBungee family, said Mr. Walton’s decision is precedent-setting for finding that racism played a role in the substandard investigation, validating what the Indigenous community has been saying about police interactions for years.
For the DeBungee family, it’s also been about holding the police accountable, she said.
She said the decision highlights the need for police to take investigations seriously and not paint them all with the same brush.
Mr. DeBungee’s death occurred about two weeks after an inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students got under way in Thunder Bay, which drew criticism and concern from Indigenous families and communities about how police handled those cases. Five of the students drowned in city rivers and Staff Sgt. Harrison testified being aware of the intense scrutiny they were under at the time.
The public complaints by Brad DeBungee and Mr. Leonard got the attention of the OIPRD, prompting the oversight agency to investigate the entire service for how it polices Indigenous people. In 2018, Gerry McNeilly concluded that “systemic racism exists within the Thunder Bay Police Service at an institutional level” and delivered 44 recommendations in his Broken Trust report, including the reinvestigation of nine sudden deaths flagged for their deficiencies.
Those reinvestigations were overseen by retired OPP superintendent Ken Leppert and completed last year, resulting in a scathing leaked report that revealed an additional 16 problematic sudden-death cases flagged for further action.
Mr. DeBungee’s death is currently being reinvestigated by the OPP after a request by the Attorney-General last year.
Sentencing for Staff Sgt. Harrison is expected in the fall.
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