THUNDER BAY - One of the two Thunder Bay Police Services officers facing a Police Services Act hearing for misconduct in the investigation into the 2015 death of Stacy DeBungee has pleaded guilty to one of the charges.
The Police Services Act hearing for Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison and Det. Shawn Whipple of the Thunder Bay Police Service opened on Monday in Thunder Bay before adjudicator Greg Walton, formerly of the Ontario Provincial Police.
Harrison and Whipple have been charged with neglect of duty and discreditable conduct under the Police Services Act for alleged failures in the investigation into the death of DeBungee.
At the start of the hearing, Harrison pleaded guilty to the charge of neglect of duty and not guilty to discreditable conduct, while Whipple pleaded not guilty to both charges.
The hearing comes seven years after DeBungee’s body was found in the McIntyre River on Oct. 19, 2015. The Thunder Bay Police Service said in a media release issued only hours after his body was found that DeBungee’s death was non-criminal.
A complaint by DeBungee’s family was filed in the spring of 2016 and the 2018 report by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director Jerry McNeilly that found systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service concluded the investigation into DeBungee’s death was inadequate and there were grounds to support allegations of neglect of duty.
Late last year, the OPP announced it is conducting an independent investigation into DeBungee’s death.
An agreed statement of facts was read into the record by prosecuting attorney Joel Dubois regarding details surrounding DeBungee’s death, including that four other people were in the area and an altercation may have taken place and that DeBungee’s bank card was used the day after his body was found.
The first witness called to testify by the prosecution was former Thunder Bay Police Service deputy chief Andrew Hay.
Dubois questioned Hay about the media release issued shortly after DeBungee’s body was found that ruled his death to be non-criminal.
“Should investigators at that point be ruling out foul play?” Dubois asked.
“Based on the information you provided, it would remain a suspicious death,” Hay said.
Asha James, a partner at Falconers LLP who is representing members of the DeBungee family, referred to the Seven Youth Inquest that had begun in the city earlier in October 2015 and asked Hay if police issuing premature statements regarding sudden deaths involving Indigenous people in the city of Thunder Bay was a common practice.
“In this case the press release was premature,” he said. “In some cases in the inquest it was premature. I can’t make a blanket statement.”
Hay was also asked by James regarding the findings of the OIPRD report that concluded there was systemic racism in the Police Service.
Hay said he agreed with the findings of the report that there systemic racism does exist in the Police Service but said he saw no direct racism on the part of members.
“I think our system in general is slanted but if we saw anything overtly racist we would act on it,” he said.
During cross-examination by defense counsel David Butt representing Harrison and Whipple, Hay was asked about his role in the DeBungee investigation. According to Hay, he was not aware of any issues with the investigation until the complaint was received in the spring of 2016.
He was also asked about the issue of systemic racism and any overt racist acts by members of the police service.
“The only way I can answer that is I had no contact with Harrison or Whipple during the investigation,” Hay said. “I know the officers to be exemplary officers and have confidence in them. I have never seen them partake in any jokes or anything that could be interpreted as racist, I haven’t seen that at all.”
The hearing is scheduled to take place over the next three weeks.