An adjudicator will decide the fate of two Thunder Bay Police Service officers who conducted a flawed investigation into the death of a Rainy River First Nations man that came to reveal systemic racism in the force.
The tribunal trying Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison and Sgt. Shawn Whipple heard closing arguments on Thursday and Friday.
The pair are facing charges of neglect of duty and discreditable conduct under the Police Services Act for their role in investigating the death of 41-year-old Stacy DeBungee, whose body was found in a river in October 2015.
The case was the impetus for an Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) investigation, whose 2018 Broken Trust report found systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service.
Whipple pled not guilty to both charges. Harrison, the senior officer on the case, pled not guilty to the discreditable conduct charge.
He pled guilty to the neglect of duty charge for failing to meet with a private investigator who attempted to hand over significant leads, including tracking down a couple who had used DeBungee’s debit card after his death.
Defence counsel David Butt maintained that Whipple was never assigned to the case, and was only playing a supportive role at the multiple scenes he attended during the investigation.
Butt conceded that the investigation was flawed but insisted those flaws were systemic failings, so the officers found themselves “let down in the same way the [DeBungee] family was let down.”
He urged the adjudicator not to hold the individual officers responsible for the system’s racism.
“Yes, there is systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service, but Thunder Bay police and the Indigenous community it serves need more Shawn Whipple, not less Shawn Whipple. The same thing can be said for Staff Sgt. Harrison. There’s no neglect, so there’s no racism in the neglect.”
Prosecutor Joël Dubois argued the officers reached the premature conclusion that there was “no foul play” in DeBungee’s death based on racist assumptions.
Dubois claimed Harrison assumed DeBungee had been drinking alcohol on the night of his death based on a history of alcohol charges and how his body was found on a river where the officers testified that mostly Indigenous people are known to drink.
Dubois claimed the officers developed a theory based on those racist assumptions that DeBungee fell unconscious from drinking alcohol then rolled into the river and investigators never seriously considered alternative theories.
“They jumped to a conclusion,” Dubois said. “We saw in the evidence yesterday, the admission of then-Det. Harrison that his bias made him conclude at that time that there was no foul play — partially conclude that there was no foul play — that’s admitted in the record. It was a direct link between his assumption and his thought that there’s no foul play.”
The lawyer representing the DeBungee family and Rainy River First Nations, Asha James, claimed the officers “did nothing” to investigate any alternate theories.
She pointed out how both officers were unable to define systemic racism and neither had read the OIPRD’s Broken Trust report, whose investigation was prompted by their investigation into DeBungee’s death.
“He [Harrison] cares so much about the interactions with the Indigenous community that he’s training other officers in the Thunder Bay Police Service about how to do this work. And he hasn’t read the report,” she said.
“Quite frankly, those statements about their care and concern about the Indigenous community are not credible. Sergeant Whipple hasn’t read the report. It’s four years later. The report stems from their conduct.”
Adjudicator Greg Walton will reconvene the tribunal on Sept. 26.