THUNDER BAY — The family of Stacey DeBungee are calling for Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison, the Thunder Bay Police Service officer who failed to properly investigate the circumstances surrounding his death, to be removed from the Police Service.
“If Staff Sgt. Harrison remains on the force for the Thunder Bay Police Service, it will be seen by the community and public complainants as more of the status quo,” said Asha James, counsel on behalf of the public complainants. “This community needs Staff Sgt. Harrison to be held accountable and it needs to be deterrence for other officers in the Thunder Bay Police Service.”
On Wednesday, James presented her penalty submissions in the Police Service Act hearing for Harrison, who was found guilty of discreditable conduct and neglect of duty earlier this year for mishandling the investigation into DeBungee’s death.
DeBungee’s body was found in the McIntyre River on Oct. 19, 2015. Hours later the Thunder Bay Police Service issued a statement that the death was considered non-criminal. Harrison was the lead investigator and charged under the Police Services Act with discreditable conduct and neglect of duty.
At the start of the PSA hearings in May 2022, Harrison pleaded guilty to the charge of neglect of duty for failing to meet with a private investigator hired by the DeBungee family. Adjudicator Greg Walton found Harrison guilty of discreditable conduct in July 2022, saying in his ruling that the failings in the investigation were based on racial bias.
A second officer, Det. Shawn Whipple, was also charged with discreditable conduct and neglect of duty but was found not guilty on both charges.
During the penalty hearing that opened on Tuesday, defense counsel David Butt called for Harrison to receive a demotion of two ranks for three to six months, while the service prosecutor argued he should be demoted to the rank of constable first class and be barred from holding any supervisory positions for one year.
James said those penalties do not go far enough in addressing the seriousness of the charges, nor the context in which they were committed.
“Both the defense and prosecutor have described this case as unique. I would submit that Staff Sgt. Harrison’s conduct is not quite that unique,” James said. “He made assumptions and came to conclusions not supported by the evidence. What is unique about this case is he is finally being held to account.”
James argued Harrison is no longer capable of serving as a police officer in the community and his failures being based on an unconscious bias cannot excuse his action or inactions during the investigation into DeBungee’s death.
Throughout the PSA hearing, evidence was presented showing that Harrison failed to take charge of the scene where DeBungee’s body was found, record detailed notes, or interview witnesses.
In his ruling, Walton indicated the case was an example of how “unconscious bias” about Indigenous victims could influence investigations by the Thunder Bay Police Service.
“How can the community, and specifically the Indigenous community, have any confidence in Staff Sgt. Harrison’s ability to conduct his duties free of bias and stereotypes when he takes the position that he was morally innocent because his bias was unconscious?” James said.
“Quite frankly it is offensive that Staff Sgt. Harrison would make submissions that he is morally blameless because his bias was somehow unconscious. He made strategic decisions in his investigation to do nothing. He based those on beliefs and stereotypes he held.”
The circumstances of the DeBungee investigation existed in the backdrop of the Seven Youth Inquest, as well as ongoing strife between the Indigenous community and the Thunder Bay Police Service, and James said Harrison never took any of that into consideration when investigating DeBungee’s death.
“It only serves to further show that he is not suitable as an officer with the Thunder Bay Police Service,” James said. “It is clear that there is a serious need to denounce and deter anti-Indigenous racism within the Thunder Bay Police Service.”
Butt said during his submissions on Tuesday that if Harrison was to be demoted to the rank of constable he would face a financial loss of $145,000.
James said the harm and effect on Harrison and his family should not outweigh the harm and effect on the community.
“Butt said the service needs a clean slate. How can you have a clean slate when you keep officers on the force who engage in this type of racist stereotyping in investigations?” James said. “(Harrison) has never apologized, he has shown no remorse, no self-reflection. He has shown absolutely the opposite.”
Issues of systemic racism and failures by leadership in the Thunder Bay Police Service were raised throughout the hearing, with Butt arguing Harrison did not design that system and was merely acting within it.
Butt said a disproportionate penalty would be scapegoating Harrison and making him answer to the failings of a large system.
The penalty of termination is not scapegoating Harrison, James argued, but rather helping to rebuild trust and doing the right thing.
James acknowledged that Harrison’s actions have damaged the reputation of the Thunder Bay Police Service and keeping him on the service would only serve to damage it more.
But she did agree with Butt’s point that there needs to be a clean slate at the Thunder Bay Police Service, because it is well past the time for change.
“If Staff Sgt. Harrison has to be that change, then so be it,” she said. “He conducted himself in this manner. He is not a sacrificial lamb. He did this. He was in charge of the investigation. He relied on the stereotypes. He did nothing.”