THUNDER BAY - Det. Shawn Whipple testified that he had a limited role in the 2015 sudden death investigation involving Stacy DeBungee, but agreed with Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison’s testimony that race plays no role in how police conduct investigations.
Whipple was called to testify on day six of the Police Services Act hearing on charges of neglect of duty and discreditable conduct.
Harrison has pleaded guilty to the charge of neglect of duty and not guilty to the charge of discreditable conduct. Whipple has pleaded not guilty to both charges.
Prior to Whipple’s testimony, service prosecutor Joel Dubois and Asha James, representing the public complainants in the hearing including the DeBungee family, concluded cross-examination of Harrison, who began his testimony on Monday.
Dubois questioned Harrison about two meetings he had with Stacy DeBungee’s brother Brad DeBungee, one that occurred on Oct. 21, 2015, two days after DeBungee’s body was found in the McIntyre River, and again in November 2015.
During the first meeting on Oct. 21, Brad DeBungee mentioned wanting an inquest into his brother’s death and obtaining legal counsel, though Dubois questioned Harrison over why none of that is recorded in his notes.
“I suggest you didn’t want all that to be documented,” Dubois said.
“No,” Harrison said.
DeBungee attended the Thunder Bay Police Service headquarters again in November with private investigator David Perry, who was hired to look into the circumstances surrounding Stacy DeBungee’s death and had information relevant to the investigation. No meeting took place, and Harrison testified on Monday that not meeting with the private investigator was a mistake.
But Dubois asked him why he did not ask Brad DeBungee about the private investigator’s findings during a meeting they had on Nov. 24, 2015.
“My recollection was when the message was provided to me and to call Mr. Perry, it was he wanted to speak to me,” Harrison said. “I don’t recall he had information to give you so that might be why I didn’t ask.”
Dubois then put it to Harrison that he and Whipple made premature assumptions about DeBungee’s death, did not provide adequate attention to the investigation, and failed to properly communicate with the family or treat them fairly based on their Indigenous status.
Harrison disagreed with all assertions.
During cross-examination by James, Harrison was questioned about his theory that DeBungee was intoxicated and rolled into the river and drowned.
Harrison said he had experience of knowing people drinking along the river and falling into the water.
“Unfortunately, we have too many people going into the river, both drowning and getting out,” he said. “The other officers I worked with have dealt with the same thing, so it wasn’t too far out of the realm of possibility.”
“If you had found a Caucasian person in the river and no signs of trauma and no indication that he was drinking, but officers have dealt with similar liquor licence offences, would that be your same working theory?” James asked.
“Yes,” Harrison said.
James then suggested to Harrison that he saw DeBungee as an Indigenous man who other officers had said they encountered in the past on alcohol-related offences and assumed because there were no visible signs of trauma on the body that he was drunk and rolled into the river.
Harrison disagreed with James’ suggestion.
“I am going to suggest to you that the assumption that you made, that theory, one of your theories, drove how you conducted this investigation, didn’t it?” James asked.
“No,” Harrison said.
Regarding the private investigator, James said she wanted to know why Harrison did not meet with him in November 2015.
“I did not know the status of Mr. Perry at that time,” Harrison said. “I didn’t know where he came from. It was probably a misunderstanding on my part. As a private citizen, I didn’t think I could provide any information to him and I didn’t know if he could provide any information. I didn’t know who he was working for until I met Brad that day.”
Harrison reiterated that it was a mistake he made and he wished he had followed up with the private investigator. He agreed on Monday that not meeting with the private investigator constituted neglect of duty.
Whipple testifies to role in DeBungee investigation
Defense counsel David Butt also called Whipple to testify on Tuesday. During his testimony, Whipple said his involvement in the DeBungee investigation was limited, with Harrison and another investigator, Det. Const. Clark McKever, taking the lead roles.
Whipple’s participation included attending the scene with Harrison after he was picked up from the courthouse to be taken back to the police headquarters, as well as accompanying McKever during the next of kin notification, and assisting Harrison during an interview at the Thunder Bay District Jail in March 2016 with the individual whose identification was found at the scene.
“Did you have any further outstanding obligations or duties for following up related to this case?” Butt asked.
“To this case, no,” Whipple said.
According to Whipple, he has worked numerous cases involving Indigenous victims, has assisted Anishinabek Police Services in Fort William First Nation on investigations, and has a strong working relationship with the Indigenous community.
“I’m quite proud of the work I have done for the Indigenous victims I have dealt with,” he said. “My work has been well received by the victims I have come across and dealt with.”
“Does the cultural background of the victim or a deceased person in a sudden death affect in any way the quality of the work that you do?” Butt asked.
“Never,” Whipple said.
During cross-examination by Dubois, Whipple was asked if he agrees there is systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service.
“I would have to give the same answer as the deputy,” he said. “It’s been accepted. I will agree that any changes that are made out of that, we will try to do better.”
When asked if he had read the Office of the Independent Police Review Director Broken Trust report, which concluded systemic racism exists in the Thunder Bay Police Service at an institutional level, Whipple said he has not.
“I suggest to you that Harrison and yourself made premature assumptions about Mr. DeBungee’s death because of his Indigenous status. Do you agree with that?” Dubois asked.
“I do not,” Whipple said.
James questioned Whipple about his role of stepping in and out of the investigation and how familiar he was with the facts.
Whipple said he did not know all the facts but nor would he expect another investigator to know all the facts of an investigation he was working on.
“You don’t believe it is prudent for an officer in your situation who is in and out of an investigation to review occurrence reports prior to assisting in investigative steps?” James asked.
“If we had time to do so, and it was required at the time, then I would,” Whipple said, adding later: “I wasn’t the primary on this investigation and I did have my own cases I was dealing with.”
Testimony is now concluded in the hearing. Closing submissions will be presented to adjudicator Greg Walton on June 16 and 17.