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Former Rainy River Chief said DeBungee case was ‘gut-wrenching’ for family, community

Testimony continued in the Police Services Act hearing for Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison and Det. Shawn Whipple of the Thunder Bay Police Service for alleged failures in the 2015 sudden death investigation of Stacy DeBungee

THUNDER BAY - Jim Leonard, the former Chief of Rainy River First Nation, said following the death of Stacy DeBungee in 2015, the family and the community were looking for answers that were not being offered by the Thunder Bay Police Service, which lead to the complaint being filed with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director in 2016.

“One community member said to me we take better care of our dogs than the Thunder Bay Police take care of Stacy,” Leonard said. “There was a lot of discussion regarding this. I’m not an expert, but a lot of my community members were questioning me on why things were happening the way they were happening.”

Leonard, who is one of the complainants in the hearing, was called to testify on behalf of the prosecution on day two of the Police Services Act hearing for Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison and Det. Shawn Whipple of the Thunder Bay Police Service on charges of neglect of duty and discreditable conduct.

Harrison pleaded guilty to the charge of neglect of duty but not guilty to discreditable conduct along with Whipple who pleaded not guilty to both charges.

In Office of the Independent Police Review Director Jerry McNeill’s report released in 2018 that found systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service, he concluded that there were numerous deficiencies in the Police Service’s investigation into DeBungee’s death and there were grounds to support allegations of neglect of duty on the part of the lead investigators.

DeBungee’s body was found in the McIntyre River on Oct. 19, 2015 and the Thunder Bay Police Service issued a statement that his death was non-suspicious only hours after he was found and before a post-mortem examination was conducted.

“We were approached by the DeBungee family, namely Brad (Stacy’s brother), early on after Stacy’s death,” Leonard testified. “He indicated the family’s frustration with getting any of their questions answered in regard to Stacy’s death.”

Prosecuting attorney, Joel Dubois, asked Leonard what concerns the family and community had with respect to the investigation into DeBungee’s death.

Leonard said the fact that the death was ruled non-suspicious so quickly was very concerning.

“That decision was made in a matter of a few hours,” he said. “In our minds, the autopsy wasn’t done, how could that decision be made that quickly? And questions the family had were not getting any answers.”

Following an investigation by a private investigator hired by the DeBungee family that found an altercation may have taken place near the river where DeBungee’s body was found and that his bank card was used the night after his death, Leonard said the Thunder Bay Police Service’s investigation into the circumstances of his death reinforced the community’s belief that it was biased based on race.

“The thinking in my community was had this been a white person it would have been handled differently,” he said. “It reinforced the whole case. The whole case was just tainted, gut-wrenching. It’s awful the way we are being treated.”

Also called to testify on Tuesday was current Thunder Bay Police Service director of communication and technology Chris Adams.

Adams was asked by Asha James, counsel for the DeBungee family, about the media release that was issued shortly after DeBungee’s body was found that stated his death was non-suspicious.

According to Adams, the content of the media release was based on conversations with Harrison at the scene, who later approved it before it was sent out.

“Do you agree the press release was insensitive to DeBungee family and Indigenous community?” James asked.

“I certainly can see how that is the case, yes,” Adams said.

James also asked Adams if he agreed that the media release conveyed to the family and community that the investigation into DeBungee’s death was biased based on him being Indigenous.

“I can see where it could convey that. However, there was no intent that I had or anyone I had contact with to make race anything to do with the nature of this release,” Adams said.

During cross-examination by David Butt, defense counsel for Harrison and Whipple, Adams was asked about the wording used in the media release, such as the death being non-suspicious was part of an ‘initial investigation,’ which Adams agreed meant it was still ongoing.

Adams was also asked about the balancing act between addressing concerns about public safety and releasing information regarding an ongoing investigation.

“The best way to look at this release is that it was a good faith effort to balance those objectives, but that you have since learned that people interpret things differently and you can adjust your practices to be more careful and sensitive to the community,” Butt said.

“Yes,” Adams said.

Two officers with the Thunder Bay Police Service were also called to testify on Tuesday, including Det. Shannon Primmer and now retired resource officer, Const. Janine Lewkoski.

Primmer was working in the forensic identification unit and attended the scene where DeBungee’s body was found. She said she did not recall all the conversations that were had on the scene between investigators regarding whether or not it was a suspicious death.

James asked her if Harrison or Whipple ever conveyed to anyone else on the scene that DeBungee was “just another intoxicated Indigenous man who fell into the water and died, which is why it was deemed non-suspicious and you didn’t take video and the scene was released.”

“No. I don’t agree with it,” Primmer replied.

During cross-examination by Butt, Primmer was asked if she recalled anyone treating the situation in a cavalier, disrespectful, or superficial way because DeBungee was Indigenous, to which Primmer said she did not.

Lewkoski, who was working as a resource officer at the time and also worked with Harrison and Whipple previously, was asked if she ever heard either make racists remarks, to which she said she had not.

“You commented on how these officers never had racist-based misbehaviour, can you comment on their professionalism as police officers and dedication to their work,” Butt asked Lewkoski during cross-examination.  

“I worked directly under Harrison,” she said. “I was always impressed with his professionalism, his decision making, I frequently went to him regarding calls coming in and his responses to those.”

At the end of testimony on Tuesday, the tribunal visited the scene at the McIntyre River where DeBungee’s body was found.

Doug Diaczuk

About the Author: Doug Diaczuk

Doug Diaczuk is a reporter and award-winning author from Thunder Bay. He has a master’s degree in English from Lakehead University
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