THUNDER BAY – Hearings into alleged misconduct by two Thunder Bay police officers in the investigation into the 2015 death of Stacy DeBungee will begin next week, offering new insight into an investigation that put the spotlight on charges of systemic racism within the city’s police service.
Police Services Act proceedings against Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison and Det. Shawn Whipple are set to begin Monday at the Prince Arthur hotel, and will be livestreamed on YouTube.
Falconers LLP, which represents complainants Brad DeBungee, Stacy’s brother, and then-chief of Rainy River First Nations, Jim Leonard, expressed confidence the hearings will bear out a conclusion previously established in a report from the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD).
That 2018 report found systemic racism against Indigenous people within the Thunder Bay Police Service likely influenced an investigation that fell well short of established standards.
The OIPRD concluded investigators neglected to follow important leads, which were later unearthed by a private investigator hired by DeBungee’s family, and that there were “probable grounds to support an allegation of neglect of duty”.
Police ruled DeBungee’s death as non-criminal just a few hours after his body was found in the McIntyre River on Oct. 19, 2015. The 41-year-old man had been living in Thunder Bay, but was an Anishinaabe member of Rainy River First Nations.
Asha James, a partner at Falconers, said the firm will focus on establishing the role racism played in the investigation as it cross-examines witnesses on behalf of the complainants.
“I think it’s clear that they didn’t take proper investigative steps,” she said. “I don’t know how you could justify how they conducted this investigation, other than that there was some operation of bias and systemic racism enshrined in the service.”
An adjudicator ruled last year that three TBPS officers involved in the investigation would face disciplinary proceedings under the Police Services Act.
The OPP also launched a reinvestigation of DeBungee’s death last fall.
The hearings, expected to take place over several weeks, are unusually lengthy for a PSA hearing largely because of the number of witnesses expected to be called, said James.
The adjudicator in the hearing will hear evidence from Brad DeBungee and former chief Jim Leonard, former deputy police chief Andy Hay, another police officer, and the investigator hired by the family, she said.
If the parties can agree to some of the facts, fewer witnesses may have to be called and the hearings could conclude earlier, she suggested, saying the process is still fluid at this stage.
A third officer, Staff Sgt. Susan Kaucharik, who was initially set to face disciplinary hearings, will no longer have to do so because she retired.
“There’s always a concern that an officer may have committed misconduct and, before a determination is made on their conduct, they’re able to retire with their full benefits and entitlements,” said James. “Of course, it feels like a sidestepping of accountability, but it’s the process we’re in. The complainants are going to focus on the two officers who are there.”
None of the allegations against any of the officers have been proven.
The hearings will put the TBPS under more scrutiny at a time when it’s already facing a misconduct investigation into its leadership, calls for disbandment from some Indigenous leaders, and numerous human rights complaints from current and former officers, as well as current police services board member and former chair, Georjann Morriseau.
The situation led Ontario’s Solicitor General to appoint an outside administrator to act in place of the board in April.