OTTAWA – An Ottawa community is finding itself conflicted over how to respond to the death of a Somali-Canadian man following a physical confrontation with police.
Ray Miron said he has had nightmares about what he saw and heard from the window of his west Ottawa apartment Sunday when 37-year-old Abdirahman Abdi was taken down by police officers on a sidewalk across the street.
“It just was not right for the beating that they gave that poor guy when he was down,” Miron said in an interview.
The incident, which ended with Abdi being taken to hospital where he was later pronounced dead, has left him angry, Miron added.
“I got to the point, I’m 67 years old and if I’d had been 30 years younger, I would have jumped that cop.”
Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit is probing Abdi’s death and was interviewing witnesses inside a truck parked at the scene Tuesday. The SIU investigates whenever there is a death, serious injury or allegation of sexual assault involving police in the province.
Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau said officers were responding to multiple 911 calls Sunday regarding “multiple assaults” at a local business, confirmed by other sources to be a cafe. After trying to make an arrest, officers chased Abdi on foot.
Shortly afterward, the SIU said, there was a “confrontation” outside the apartment building down the street, where Abdi lived with his family, and he suffered medical distress.
On Tuesday, people in the community stopped by to visit a collection of flowers laid below a tree on the lawn of the apartment building, the surrounding sidewalks filling up with the now-familiar slogan “Black Lives Matter” written in chalk — a movement that began in the United States in response to police brutality against black people and other forms of racial prejudice and discrimination.
The Canadian Association of Somali Lawyers, a national organization of about 20 Somali-Canadian lawyers from across the country, said the incident is part of a larger pattern.
“Too often, police officers do not de-escalate or take appropriate care when dealing with African-Canadians, let alone African-Canadians with disabilities or in mental distress,” its president, Billeh Hamud, said in a statement late Tuesday.
The group also called on the Ontario government to bring greater transparency to the SIU and to mandate all police officers in the province wear body cameras.
Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, also called for a swift and open investigation into whether racism played a role in the death.
“The protection and preservation of human rights and dignity, regardless of skin colour, religious belief, or any other characteristic, are integral to our collective and individual sense of safety and inclusion,” Gardee said Tuesday.
Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, said it would be “inappropriate” to imply race played a role in the incident.
“In a situation like this, race is simply a fact to the case. I mean, this is no different than gender or height,” said Skof, adding that police were responding to an assault-related call from the public as required.
Skof said the suggestion that race was a motivating factor is being fuelled by events in the U.S., which he believes is misplaced.
“Our relationships with the community are very well established and we do not have the same history around racial tensions that the U.S. experiences,” he said.
Abdourahman Kahin, who leads a group called Muslim Presence, said it is too early to assume the police were racially motivated.
He said a few hundred members of the Somali community in Ottawa gathered for a private meeting Tuesday evening to discuss how to respond to the issue, including how to ensure witnesses receive counselling and the family gets help with legal representation.
Kahin said he would be urging everyone to avoid jumping to conclusions about racial discrimination, a message he said was well-reflected at the meeting.
“We condemn the brutality of the police — 100 per cent condemn — but don’t put the colour of the victim (first),” he said Tuesday.
“Before he was black, he was a human being. He was a human being who was treated inhumanly,” said Kahin, who used to live in the same building as the Abdi family, knows one of his brothers and, like others, described the man as having some kind of mental illness or disability.
Miesha-lee Perry, 19, is unconvinced that race should not be part of the conversation.
She works at a restaurant — sometimes frequented by Abdi, who she remembers as “a very sweet guy” — that put out a “Black Lives Matter” sign on the sidewalk to let passersby know what they thought about what happened.
“There is not as much racism in Canada as there is in the States and stuff, but we still get it every day,” said Perry, who said she has been treated unfairly by police and others in Ottawa.
Bordeleau hinted at this broader context in a statement delivered to the Ottawa Police Services Board on Monday.
“We are well aware of the context within which we police,” Bordeleau said in a statement, which was released before he learned Abdi had died.
“Our officers are professional and they are dedicated to protecting the community they serve.”
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