Abdi trial raises issues of legitimate force vs. police brutality

Black people significantly more likely to be involved in use-of-force complaints against police
Photo: Michael Burns
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The trial of Const. Daniel Montsion for allegedly killing Abdirahman Abdi resumed this week. Montsion has been charged with aggravated assault, assault with a weapon and manslaughter in the 2016 death of Abdirahman Abdi.

The linchpin of the Crown's case is CCTV footage from a camera that monitors the entrance way to 55 Hilda Street, footage that captures Constables David Weir and Daniel Montsion beating Abdi before arresting him.

In his opening statement, Phillip Perlmutter, one of the two Crown attorneys, said it was “an arrest gone bad. All the evidence is uncomplicated.”

“There are two questions,” Perlmutter continued. “Did the accused use excessive force? Did the accused cause the death of Abdirahman Abdi?”

Death after violent arrest

The CCTV footage shows the end of a foot chase: Abdi crashes into the glass and metal door of 55 Hilda St. pursued by Weir, who knees Abdi. Next, Weir hits Abdi in the stomach with his nightstick and then yells at Adbi to “get down!” Abdi remains standing, but he doesn't attack Weir. Weir lunges forward and hits Abdi across the stomach with his nightstick a second time.

Seconds later Montsion arrives. As Montsion moves towards Abdi to hit him twice in the head with knuckle-plated gloves, Weir kicks Abdi and follows up with another blow with his nightstick. Weir then kicks Abdi again while Montsion lands another three punches to Abdi's head. It looks like Weir then slams Abdi to the ground, and puts his knee in Abdi's back. Monstion kneels on Abdi's other side and hits Abdi three more times in his left leg, then twice more in the head. After the head blows Abdi seems stunned, and Weir and Montsion are able to get Abdi's hands behind his back so that Montsion can handcuff him.

Abdirahman Abdi died of a heart attack soon after this beating, although he was resuscitated at the Ottawa Hospital. He died the next day.

Failure to de-escalate

The legal question before the court is whether Montsion used a reasonable amount of force against Abdi, who was resisting arrest but did not attack Weir or Montsion.

In mid-March, the Crown called an expert witness, former deputy chief of the Toronto Police Richard Federico, to testify about police use of force. Federico was on the stand for three days.

Federico testified that neither Montsion nor Weir tried to de-escalate the situation, which violates the Ontario Use of Force model.

In their book Police: A Field Guide, professors David Correia and Tyler Wall write that “the use-of-force continuum masquerades as a kind of safe standard theory of police force that promises to hold police accountable but, in practice, serves to inoculate police officers from any and all sanction.”

"Black civilians are 5.4 times more likely to become involved in a SIU use of force investigation than their White counterparts."

In this case the prosecution is alleging that Montsion's use of force — repeated blows to the head while wearing knuckle-plated gloves — was criminal, but that Weir's use of force — he pepper-sprayed, kneed, kicked, and hit Abdi three times with his nightstick before slamming him to the ground — was legal.

Police impunity, racism and ableism

However, this technical legal question of exactly how much violence constitutes “excessive force” conceals a larger political issue: A Black man, a Somali immigrant with mental health problems living in poverty, was beaten by a white police officer and then died.

According to the 2006 Police Use of Force in Ontario report by Associate Professor Scot Wortley, “the police use of force for Black Ontario residents is 4.3 times higher than the provincial rate.... Black civilians are 5.4 times more likely to become involved in a SIU use of force investigation than their White counterparts.”

The report also found that 22 per cent of Black civilians injured or killed by police officers were experiencing from mental health problems. A 2017 CBC news investigation found that “more than 460 people have died in encounters with police across Canada” between 2000 and 2017, and that 42 per cent of those who died were mentally distressed.

According to the Toronto Star, from 1990 to 2010 the Special Investigations Unit conducted “at least 3,400 investigations and laid charges after only 95 of them.” Of these 95 charges “only 16 officers have been convicted of a crime.”

The CBC found that of 461 police killings between 2000 and 2017 there were “only 18 cases where criminal charges were laid against an officer. Of these cases, there have only been two convictions. Some of the cases are still before the courts.”

In the 1990s, the SIU was created partly to stop the practice of police policing themselves. A similar conflict of interest exists for Ontario courts judging police officers accused of criminal wrongdoing.

Defining police brutality

Montsion's trial is expected to finish this month.

In 2018, the Ontario Liberal government passed The Safer Ontario Act which would have increased the powers of the SIU and increased oversight of Ontario police forces and reflected many of the recommendations made by Justice Michael Tulloch in his independent review of police oversight in Ontario.

However, the new Ford Conservative government has prevented changes from The Safer Ontario Act from being implemented, and have said that they will introduce their own bill this spring.

The day-to-day violence inflicted by white police officers on Black men is usually not news.

In the conclusion to the New Ontario Use of Force Model, the authors write, “Authority to use force separates law enforcement officials from other members of society and the reasonable use of force is central to every officers' duties.”

In addition to questions about police violence against Black and disabled people, Abdi's death is further complicated by the bigger question of how much violence should the police permitted to use?

Additionally, most police violence is never investigated. The Special Investigations Unit only investigates cases of “serious or fatal injury.”

Use of force is a euphemism for police violence.

If Abdi hadn't died the public would likely never have learned about it, and if Abdi hadn't died the beating he received at the hands of both Weir and Montsion would likely never have drawn any attention.

The day-to-day violence inflicted by white police officers on Black men is usually not news. If Abdi hadn't had a heart attack and died it's likely that there would never have been an investigation by the Special Investigations Unit.

What the court, represented by Justice R. Kelly, will be deciding is not whether or not Montsion used violence to arrest Abdi, but if Montsion's repeated punches to the head and legs were excessive. The court will be defining if Montsion's actions were legal and acceptable, or illegal and brutal.

At stake is not only whether Montsion will be punished, but if the court will condemn police brutality.

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