THUNDER BAY — The officer involved in the mishandling of the 2015 investigation into the sudden death of Stacey DeBungee could face a penalty ranging from a demotion to termination, but DeBungee's family and members of his home community question whether any penalty will result in real change within the Thunder Bay Police Service.
The Police Services Act hearing involving Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison resumed on Tuesday with submissions on potential penalties presented to adjudicator Greg Walton.
Harrison was found guilty of misconduct following the hearing that first opened on May 30. He pleaded guilty to the charge of neglect of duty at the start of the hearing.
The charges relate to Harrison’s mishandling of the sudden death investigation involving Stacey DeBungee of Rainy River First Nation. DeBungee’s body was found in the McIntyre River on Oct. 19, 2015 and the Thunder Bay Police Service issued a media release only hours later stating the death was non-criminal.
The DeBungee family filed a complaint in 2016 and the Office of the Independent Police Review Director concluded in the 2018 Broken Trust report that the investigation was inadequate.
Det. Shawn Whipple was also charged with misconduct and neglect of duty but was found not guilty on both charges.
During the hearing on Tuesday, members of DeBungee’s family and the former chief of Rainy River First Nation testified to how his death and the inadequate investigation has impacted them and eroded trust in the Thunder Bay Police Service.
“Personally, it has affected me in a way that is somewhat hard to explain,” said Jim Leonard, the community's former chief. “There’s a feeling of not knowing what happened to Stacey and that wanting to get those answers. In my many discussions with community members, that was the first question they always asked: what happened.”
Leonard went on to say that he and DeBungee’s home community are still waiting for answers and he believes little has changed since 2015, particularly when it comes to the relationship between the Thunder Bay Police Service and the Indigenous community.
“It hasn’t improved it,” he said. “That feeling of distrust is there, it has been there since it happened and it is still there today.”
Stacey DeBungee’s sister, Candace DeBungee, testified that her brother was a fun person, her confidant, and her everything.
“I’m still in disbelief that he’s gone. Not knowing how he really died,” she said. “It affected me a lot because I couldn’t function. When I did function, I would break down in tears. Just constantly crying and constantly angry. All these emotions.”
Candace DeBungee echoed Leonard’s belief that little has changed since her brother’s death and she doesn’t believe there will be any meaningful change in the future.
“What are they going to do? Nothing. Nothing will change. Nothing’s changed,” she said. “In my eyes, they had not done a single thing to find out exactly what happened. Different rules for different peoples.”
Brad DeBungee, Stacey’s brother, has been involved in the complaint since it was first filed, and he testified on Tuesday that the guilty verdict for Harrison has given him some comfort.
“Sort of happy, joyful in a way, because now there is someone being held accountable for their actions,” he said. “But they put up a good fight for the past seven years. That’s why it has taken seven years. Because they don’t want to take the responsibility. Passing the buck to somebody else.”
Harrison also testified on Tuesday to answer questions regarding an affidavit submitted to Walton that includes a summary of 40 cases he has worked on between 2008 and 2016, 39 of which involved an Indigenous person.
During cross-examination by Asha James, counsel for the DeBungee family, Harrison admitted that two of the cases included in the affidavit were recommended for re-investigation by the OIPRD.
Harrison also testified that he is eligible for retirement with a full pension in 2028 and if the penalty he receives was to include a demotion down to the rank of constable, it would cost him $150,000.
Harrison’s counsel, David Butt, argued in his submission that a penalty of that severity is unfair and unjustified given the circumstances and context of the charges.
“This episode of misconduct takes place in the context of pervasive, systemic discrimination. The Broken Trust report, the Sinclair report make that very clear,” he said. “The evidence that you’ve heard today makes that very clear that there is a long-standing, deep, and broad mistrust by the Indigenous community of the Thunder Bay police.”
Butt added there needs to be fundamental reform in the Thunder Bay Police Service and a clean slate of leadership.
“This case sits inside a much bigger problem, a much deeper and broader and impactful failing of the service that falls on the shoulders of the leaders,” Butt said. “This penalty hearing is about the specific acts of an individual who did not design that system and yet acted within it, because that is what he was obliged to do.”
Other mitigating factors according to Butt include the work load for investigators at the time, including Harrison, his record as an officer with no previous disciplinary action, and the long timeline of the PSA hearings.
Butt said Harrison has had the hearing hanging over his head for the last seven years and in the meantime he continued to work and has been promoted.
“He has demonstrated that this was at best an isolated issue,” Butt said.
Butt recognized the severity of the charges and the finding of guilt, which is why he is recommending Harrison still face a demotion and not just lost hours, but he argued the demotion should only be two ranks for a period of three to six months.
“My client deserves a fair penalty that properly reflects the aggravating and mitigating factors in the range set by the case law. What he does not deserve is to be scapegoated,” Butt said. “You can’t punish your way out of this huge problem. What you need is the education, restructuring, resources to personal and system changes, and most importantly, deep and meaningful outreach.”
Prosecuting attorney Joel Dubois said one of the key factors in the hearing against Harrison involves public trust.
“Public trust is an essential requirement for effective policing,” he said. “In the current case, the public interest is quite engaged. Staff Sgt. Harrison’s action has undermined the trust of the community and that all Indigenous citizens will be treated fairly and adequately.”
Dubois is calling for Harrison to be demoted to the rank of constable first class and not be eligible for any management or supervisory positions for one year.
“Staff Sgt. Harrison showed limited insight regarding the extent of his failings relating to the investigation and the premature assumption he made about the cause of death of Stacy DeBungee, which were based, particularly on his indigenous status,” Dubois said.
Dubois agreed there are mitigating factors, such as Harrison’s potential for rehabilitation through cultural training, which he has agreed to attend, as well as working within systemic failures of the Thunder Bay Police Service.
But Dubois said systemic issues in the Police Service are not an excuse and relying upon that argument and excusing the misconduct would send the wrong message to the public.
“For a message to be sent to all police officers that every individual is entitled to non-discriminatory policing, a serious demotion would send that message,” he said.
James will present her submissions on Tuesday. She has indicated that the DeBungee family is calling for Harrison to be terminated.