Thunder Bay police chief tells custody deaths inquest that officers lacked compassion

Thunder Bay police

Officers with Thunder Bay police had a “lack of human compassion” for people they were interacting with at the time when two men died of medical conditions while in custody, the force’s acting police chief told an inquest on Wednesday.

Dan Taddeo was testifying in the northern Ontario city at the joint coroner’s inquest into the 2014 death of Donald Mamakwa and the 2017 death of Roland McKay.

Both Indigenous men died of medical conditions while in custody at police headquarters after being arrested on suspicion of public intoxication. The inquest has heard that neither was assessed by a doctor or nurse before they died.

Taddeo said he generally agreed with a lawyer for the men’s families that the culture at the police force at the time of the deaths allowed stereotypes to fester.

“You become a bit of a product of your environment,” Taddeo said. He pointed to a lack of resources in the city to support people with addictions and other challenges, which he said led to “compassion fatigue” among officers who were interacting with similar situations every day.

“You lose the human element, which is so unfortunate.”

Taddeo told the inquest that a failure of police culture and leadership allowed the lack of compassion to fester.

He testified that he’s seen improvements in police culture in the years after the two deaths, though he said there was still a lack of resources for police and services like addiction supports.

Taddeo said videos showing how Mamakwa was treated during his arrest are “not even close” to the police force he sees today, and said both men should not have been in custody.

“These two gentlemen should never have been in our cells,” he said.

The inquest has heard that both men had chances of survival if they had been taken to the hospital.

In Mamakwa’s case, the inquest heard his condition was very treatable. He died from complications from diabetes, sepsis and chronic alcoholism, a forensic pathologist testified.

Inquest jurors heard that Mamakwa asked to be taken to hospital at the time of his arrest, and asked other people in custody for help while he was in the cell.

Taddeo, who was appointed acting chief of police in June after the suspension of chief Sylvie Hauth, testified about recent instructions that went out last year about “medical clearance,” emphasizing that people in custody should be continuously assessed.

He noted that Mamakwa was not checked on routinely, as dictated by policy at the time, and there was a clear “lack of care” in how he was treated.

His testimony also touched on reconciliation efforts by Thunder Bay police, a force that’s been heavily scrutinized by reviews that have found evidence of systemic racism in its treatment of Indigenous people.

Indigenous leaders have called for the police service to be disbanded because trust has been eroded.

Taddeo testified that all police service members are completing truth and reconciliation training within the next year, and cultural competency training will become part of regular training going forward. He said it’s “essential” that truth and reconciliation efforts are seen rather than just talked about.

Closing arguments in the inquest are expected this week.

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