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Prosecutors argue race ‘clearly a factor’ in DeBungee investigation

Closing submissions concluded in the Police Service Act hearing against Staff. Sgt. Shawn Harrison and Det. Shawn Whipple for their role in the 2015 Stacy DeBungee investigation, which prosecutors argued was ‘appalling’ and ‘troubling’

THUNDER BAY - Prosecutors in the Police Service Act hearing argued the investigation into the 2015 sudden death of Stacy DeBungee by two subject officers with the Thunder Bay Police Service was clearly motivated by racial bias and resulted in investigative failures, which is why the family and Indigenous community are demanding accountability.

“The public complainants along with the members of the Indigenous community are appalled that this would be the conduct of a death investigation, appalled that they would say they have done their best work, that this is reflective of their best work. That is very, very troubling,” said Asha James, counsel for the public complainants, including the DeBungee family.

Closing submissions concluded on Friday before Adjudicator Greg Walton on day eight of the Police Service Act hearing against Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison and Det. Shawn Whipple on charges of neglect of duty and discreditable conduct.

Harrison has already pleaded guilty to the charge of neglect of duty for failing to meet with a private investigator hired by the DeBungee family but has pleaded not guilty to the charge of discreditable conduct. Whipple has pleaded not guilty to both charges.

Service prosecutor Joel Dubois concluded his closing submissions that began on Thursday where he argued Harrison had tunnel vision at the start of the investigation based on racial biases resulting in him concluding DeBungee was an Indigenous man who was intoxicated, rolled into the river, and drowned.

DeBungee’s body was found in the McIntyre River on Oct. 19, 2015. Shortly after, police issued a statement saying the death was non-suspicious and on Oct. 20 stated the death was non-criminal before the post-mortem examination was completed.

“It is abundantly clear that the only theory verbalized with the DeBungee family was the original theory that Stacy was drunk and rolled into the river,” Dubois said.

“Race was clearly a factor in the officer’s conduct in this matter. In my submissions, the officers have not provided any creditable or reasonable explanation for their actions or inactions. There is clear and convincing evidence that there was discrimination and therefore discreditable conduct.”

James began her closing submission by arguing that the defense put forward by counsel David Butt has been one of deflecting responsibility away from the subject officers.

“What has become clear through these proceedings is there is a theme to the defense of the officers, and quite frankly, that theme is pass the buck,” she said, adding that Butt argued certain aspects of the investigation, including Harrison not reviewing the incident occurrence reports was part of a ‘systemic failure.’

“No, it’s laziness,” James continued. “The reports were in the file. Harrison and Whipple had access to them and they chose not to review them. The reason they chose not to review them is because they already made up their mind of what happened to Stacy DeBungee.”

During Butt’s closing submission on Thursday, he argued that Office of the Independent Police Review Director Jerry McNeilly’s 2018 report, Broken Trust, which found systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service should be given limited weight in Walton’s decision in the Police Service Act hearing because it is focused on discipline, not systemic change. Both Harrison and Whipple testified that they had not read the report.

But James argued that Walton is entitled to rely on systemic evidence, including that of the Broken Trust report, which she says uncovered a poisoned work environment at the Thunder Bay Police Service.

“This is a report about racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service. Systemic racism. Subconscious biases and prejudices are directly relevant to the issues before this tribunal,” James said. “What the public complainants seek is the accountability for that conduct.”

James also focused on the argument presented by Dubois that Harrison had tunnel vision at the start of the investigation and failed to take proper investigative steps to go beyond that theory.

“Quite frankly, Stacy DeBungee’s Indigenous status was front and centre in this case,” James said. “The moment they found an Indigenous man dead in the water, they assumed he was drunk and rolled into the river.”

“I get it that they don’t want to be called racists. It’s not nice. It’s not a nice feeling. Quite frankly, it wasn’t a nice feeling for the family of Stacy DeBungee that that was the only theory relayed to them.”

Regarding Whipple’s role in the investigation, which he testified to being limited because he was not the primary detective on the case, James said little weight should be given to that assertion because he was still a police officer who took ‘formal steps’ in this investigation and should have ‘formal responsibility.’

James pointed out several failures on the part of Harrison and Whipple during the investigation, including a lack of effort to find and interview the individual whose ID card was found on the river bank, failing to interview others who were present during the next of kin notification, not meeting with the private investigator, and not reading the case reports.

“The work on this case quite frankly is appalling. These officers gave little effort to finding out what happened to Stacy DeBungee, how he ended up in the river on Oct. 19, 2015. And since then, all they’ve done is pass the buck and make excuses,” James said.

“This is their best? This is why the public complainants are upset and angry. This is why the public complainants have been seeking accountability because this is not a thorough or competent investigation. This is confirmation that they relied on their initial bias and prejudice for why Stacy ended up in the river and they felt like they didn’t have to do anything more.”

During a brief reply, Butt said the prosecution failed to recognize the distinction between acknowledging the existence of a possibility and concluding it is the only possible explanation with respect to homicide not being ruled out during the investigation.

Butt also pointed again to Harrison and Whipple’s record in dealing with sudden death and homicide investigations, many of which involved Indigenous victims.

“What is the reasonable basis to treat this case differently?” Butt asked. “You didn’t hear an answer to that because there isn’t one.”

Walton said he is unable to provide a timeline for when his decision will be available, saying he has a lot of information to consider.

The tribunal will need to reconvene to address the guilty plea entered by Harrison. It is scheduled to meet again on Sept. 26, 2022.

Doug Diaczuk

About the Author: Doug Diaczuk

Doug Diaczuk is a reporter and award-winning author from Thunder Bay. He has a master’s degree in English from Lakehead University
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