A lawyer for the family of an Indigenous man found dead in a Thunder Bay, Ont., river argued Wednesday that a police officer at the centre of a disciplinary hearing should be fired for conducting an investigation that’s been declared negligent and tainted by racism and unconscious bias.
The second and final day of the Police Services Act hearing concluded with submissions on potential penalties for Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison, ranging from a reduction in rank to being fired for his role in investigating the death of Stacey DeBungee.
A passerby spotted DeBungee, 41, in Thunder Bay’s McIntyre River on a morning in October 2015 and called police. Within a few hours — before an autopsy could be completed — the Thunder Bay Police Service put out a statement deeming the death non-suspicious. In a second statement the following morning, the force called the death “non-criminal.”
Police attributed DeBungee’s death — which occurred during a coroner’s inquest into how police had responded to the mostly river-related deaths of seven young Indigenous people — to accidental drowning while drunk.
“What followed is an investigation that has brought … injury to the friends and family of Mr. DeBungee, and has further strained an already problematic relationship between the Indigenous community in Thunder Bay and the Thunder Bay Police Service,” Asha James, a lawyer representing DeBungee’s brother, Brad DeBungee, argued Wednesday.
“You rebuild trust with the community by doing the right thing, taking a stand and saying we will not tolerate this behaviour in our ranks and this is not the type of officer we are interested in having as part of our service.”
In July, an adjudicator found Harrison guilty of neglect of duty and discreditable conduct in a 119-page decision that found the officer’s unconscious bias led him to conduct a grossly deficient investigation and fail to treat DeBungee’s death without discriminations.
“Staff Sgt. Harrison testified that he always held out that the matter could be suspicious in nature, but if there was truth to that assertion, his investigation would have reflected it,” adjudicator Greg Walton wrote in his decision.
“The resulting negligent investigation was so deficient that he should have been aware that his conduct was adversely affected by an unconscious bias.”
Harrison, who pleaded guilty to the charges, is seeking a demotion of rank and training to address unconscious bias.
“Unconscious bias affects most people. I would actually go further and say it affects everybody, and that’s exactly why it cannot be the basis for punishment,” David Butt, Harrison’s lawyer, argued at the hearing. “Deliberate or careless actions can be and that is what I have asked the punishment be based on.”
Butt further argued that Harrison should not be made a “fall guy” and dismissed because of the broader social context of Indigenous-police relations.
“He’s not responsible for that broader social context … that is an invitation to scapegoating,” Butt said.
The July decision noted that police took no video, photographs or measurements of the scene and gave no thought to securing the area until an autopsy had been done. It also said police took five months to contact the last person known to have been alone with DeBungee and detectives ignored a woman’s confession that she had been in a shoving match with him before he ended up in the river.
Officers were also unaware that DeBungee’s debit card was used after his death and they took no formal statements from anyone who was with DeBungee before his death, the decision said.
DeBungee, of the Rainy River First Nation, about 400 kilometres west of Thunder Bay, was previously described by his brother Brad as a “happy-go-lucky” and friendly guy who made people laugh.
In an effort to get at what happened, his family hired a private investigator who was able to piece together what the victim had done the day before his death and who he had been with, said a review released in 2018 by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director.
The review noted police interviewed none of those people and refused to meet the investigator, which amounted to neglect of duty.
The adjudicator said a decision on what disciplinary action will be taken against Harrison won’t come before the end of the year.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press