THUNDER BAY – A Thunder Bay police officer has been found guilty of neglect of duty and discreditable conduct for his role in the 2015 investigation into the death of Stacey DeBungee, with the adjudicator in the case concluding Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison’s mishandling of the investigation was based on racial bias.
A second officer who faced the same charges during a recent Police Services Act hearing over the investigation, Det. Shawn Whipple, was found not guilty on both counts.
Harrison, who played a lead role in the investigation, had pleaded guilty on the charge of neglect of duty and not guilty on the charge of discreditable conduct, while Whipple – who was less involved in the investigation – pleaded not guilty on both charges.
“Staff Sgt. Harrison failed to treat or protect the deceased and his or her family equally and without discrimination because the deceased was Indigenous,” adjudicator Greg Walton concluded in his decision.
Walton indicated the case was an example of how “unconscious bias” about Indigenous victims could influence investigations by the Thunder Bay Police Service.
“There is no evidence suggesting Staff Sergeant Harrison or Sergeant Whipple held overt biases about Indigenous people that adversely affected any aspect of any other investigation,” he wrote.
However, Walton said after reviewing evidence and testimony in the case, he was “convinced that because the deceased person was Indigenous, found in a river where other Indigenous men had been found drowned, with a high level of alcohol in their system, [Harrison] assumed the very same circumstances must have therefore existed in this case.”
"Frankly, there is no other reasonable explanation for such a shoddy investigation, one that was less than substandard from the very beginning," he wrote.
Prosecutors with Falconers LLP, which represented Stacey's brother, Brad DeBungee, and Rainy River First Nations, had sought to establish race as a clear factor behind the investigation's shortfalls.
"My family and I are pleased that there is finally some accountability for the way Stacey’s investigation was handled," said Brad DeBungee in a statement issued by Falconers. "We have had to fight the Thunder Bay Police Service every step of the way to ensure accountability for Stacey. He deserved to have a proper death investigation. We deserved to know what happened to our brother.”
In his decision, Walton concluded Whipple played a support role in the investigation, and therefore could not be found to have neglected a duty, nor was he in a position of enough responsibility in the case to consider his conduct discreditable.