THUNDER BAY - Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison has admitted failing to meet with the private investigator hired to look into the circumstances surrounding the 2015 death of Stacy DeBungee constituted neglect of duty, but maintained racial bias did not play a part in the initial investigation by the Thunder Bay Police Service.
Both Harrison and private investigator David Perry testified on day five of the Police Services Act hearing against Harrison and Det. Shawn Whipple on charges of neglect of duty and discreditable conduct for their roles in that investigation.
Harrison has pleaded guilty to the charge of neglect of duty and not guilty to discreditable conduct. Whipple pleaded not guilty to both charges.
Defense counsel David Butt asked Harrison about the private investigator coming to the Balmoral Street police headquarters in November 2015 with Stacy DeBungee’s brother, Brad, to discuss further evidence he found in the case. That meeting never took place.
“You are acknowledging that constitutes neglect of duty?” Butt asked.
“That was a mistake on my part,” Harrison said, adding that if he had known Brad DeBungee was with the private investigator, he would have taken the meeting.
“I did feel bad in the sense that I didn’t speak with Mr. DeBungee,” he continued. “I have never not spoken with next of kin. If the circumstances were different, I probably would have ended up speaking with both of them.”
Harrison was also questioned about the investigation conducted after Stacy DeBungee’s body was found in the McIntyre river on Oct. 19, 2015.
Shortly after DeBungee’s body was found, police issued a media release stating the death was non-suspicious and the scene was released prior to a post-mortem examination taking place.
“In this case, I believe it was almost an agreed-upon decision by myself, the coroner, and identification,” Harrison said of the decision to release the scene. “Identification had everything they needed, the coroner was comfortable with what we were looking at, and I also believed these two experts in their field, so all of us came to that conclusion.”
Harrison added that after the post-mortem examination, there was no reason to return to the scene and there was no suspicion of criminality in the case, but that did not mean criminality was completely dismissed.
“The possibility that alcohol played a factor in this was relevant,” Harrison said, referring to other offices who said they had dealings with DeBungee in other alcohol-related incidents. “The terrain and nearby river unfortunately could result in somebody going into the river, especially if they are intoxicated. At the time, we had no one saying anything different, nothing mentioned to me at least at the time.”
“In this case, we weren’t dismissing homicide, we just didn’t have it at that point and that could change,” Harrison later added.
With respect to the media release issued on Oct. 19, 2015 that was approved by Harrison, he said he agreed with earlier testimony by Thunder Bay Police Service director of communications and technology Chris Adams, who said there was a balancing act between assuring the public there is no public safety risk and that an investigation is ongoing.
Harrison said he was aware the Seven Youth Inquest was underway in the city, and he had heard rumours from other officers that people in the Indigenous community believed a serial killer could be responsible for the youth deaths.
“There was no evidence of a serial murderer, and I can understand the concern of the community,” he said. “We wanted to reassure people this wasn’t the case.”
A second media release was issued on Oct. 20, 2015 that stated DeBungee’s death was non-criminal, but Harrison said he did not see that release nor approve it, and believes it should never have been issued.
“I would not have allowed that release to go out worded like that,” he said. “It is making a conclusion of something we haven’t come to yet. We couldn’t come to that conclusion because we hadn’t had the post-mortem yet.”
Butt then asked Harrison about the identification card that was found at the scene, and if he tried to contact the individual it belonged to for an interview.
A notice was put out internally that if the individual was picked up by police, investigators would be notified, but an error in how it was logged meant the individual was picked up twice without investigators knowing.
Harrison said if he knew the individual was in custody he would have interviewed him immediately. It wasn’t until March of 2016 that he became aware the individual was at the Thunder Bay District Jail. At that time, he and Whipple did conduct an interview.
“It answered the question of who was in this physical interaction that [the individual] had told a constable,” Harrison said, referring to a statement from a witness who claimed to see four individuals by the river that night, with two pushing one another.
“When I asked him about any physical altercation, he said he and his brother were in one. He didn’t recall too much, but he did advise us that he left before everybody else.”
Butt asked if the individual’s statement of being in an altercation with his brother and not DeBungee added or detracted to the characterization that DeBungee’s death was not suspicious at that time.
“It does not add to the suspicion of the death,” Harrison said. “If he had said Stacy had been in a physical altercation it would have been something to look in to. But it wasn’t Stacy, it was him and his brother.”
Harrison was also asked about his second meeting with Brad DeBungee on Nov. 24, 2015. Harrison said he told DeBungee that 10 of 11 homicide investigations the previous year were solved and that nine of them involved Indigenous people.
“He started to accuse us that we were not investigating his brother’s death because he was Indigenous, that we weren’t doing any work on it,” he said. “I admit I got a little annoyed that I was being accused of not doing my job, particularly on a racial basis.”
“Did race affect how hard you worked on this investigation?” Butt asked.
“Not at all,” Harrison said.
Prosecution questions investigative steps taken
During cross-examination by TBPS prosecutor Joel Dubois, Harrison was asked if he believed the steps taken between November 2015 and March 2016 was the best of the Criminal Investigation Branch with the Thunder Bay Police Service.
“I would say that my evidence is we did. I don’t know if it’s the best, but we did everything we had to do. Aside from talking to Mr. Perry, that was a mistake I made,” he said. “I think my team did the best. I think me not speaking to Mr. Perry was not the best.”
Dubois then asked Harrison about the findings of the Office of the Independent Police Review Director report, Broken Trust, that found systemic racism at an institutional level within the Thunder Bay Police Service.
While Harrison admitted he has not read the report, he agreed there are issues with the system, but added: “I just don’t know what specifically systemic racism refers to, what specific examples there are.”
“I suggest to you that you will find some examples in [the report],” Dubois said.
Dubois also questioned Harrison about the media releases, particularly the inconsistencies he argued exist between Harrison agreeing the wording in the second release that the death was non-criminal was incorrect, but the scene still being released on Oct. 19.
“This morning, you stated in relation to the second media release the following day, that it was wrong because you weren’t able to conclude at that time and could not rule out criminality before the post-mortem,” Dubois said. “I suggest to you that’s exactly what you did when you allowed the scene to be released the day before.”
“Just releasing the scene doesn’t mean to stop the investigation,” Harrison said.
“Why didn’t you hold the scene?” Dubois asked.
“It was agreed upon by all of us that there was nothing further that could be gained by holding the scene,” Harrison said.
Private investigator says there were red flags in investigation
Also called to testify on Monday was David Perry, the private investigator hired by the DeBungee family to look into the circumstances surrounding Stacy’s death.
Perry served with the Toronto Police Service for 28 years before retiring and starting work as a private investigator. He was in Thunder Bay for three days in November 2015 where he conducted interviews and gathered information that he felt was relevant to the investigation.
One piece of information was that DeBungee’s debit card was used after his death, though according to Harrison’s testimony, the account was used to transfer money to family members in a fly-in community who did not have bank accounts in the city, which he said was a common practice.
Perry recounted his visit to the Thunder Bay Police Service headquarters with Brad DeBungee to try to meet with investigators.
“I was horrified at the way Brad DeBungee was treated, being the brother of the deceased,” he said. “I was shocked in the way I was treated. It was a very short, sort of curt conversation, if you will. It was like, who the hell were you, when I walked in there. When I left, I believed no one was going to call me.”
Asha James, who is representing public complainants including the DeBungee family in the hearing, asked Perry if he had any theories or ideas going into the investigation.
“I had a very open mind but I had a red flag or two, but that doesn’t change how you approach the investigation,” he said, adding the first red flag was “when I read the news releases and the timing of those news releases."
“If you are doing a news release, it has to be factual,” Perry added later in his testimony. “If it is non-criminal, there has to be some kind of evidence to support that.”
James then asked Perry why he wanted to meet with police. He said he didn't have any questions for the investigators but felt the information he had collected was vital to the investigation.
“Why do you believe it was vital?” James asked.
“If there was any question about this being a suspicious death, I truly believed what I found out at the time moved the yard stick so far over to the other side where it was in fact a very suspicious death, that they needed to know that,” Perry said.
Cross-examination of Harrison will continue on Tuesday, with Whipple expected to testify afterwards.