Death of a mentally ill black man following altercation with police
Updates on this case listed at the foot of this item
Abdirahman Abdi, a 37-year-old Somali Canadian, died on 24 July 2016 following an altercation with two police officers in Ottawa, Ontario Canada. Police were called to a disturbance at the Bridgehead coffee shop and backup was requested as Abdirahman fled on foot to his apartment building. Pepper spray and batons were used to apprehend Abdirahman at the footstep of his building where he sustained multiple blows to his head. He was handcuffed and left lying in his own blood before the arrival of paramedics.
Abdirahman’s brother, Abdirizaq Abdi, who lived in the same apartment building said that he came out when he heard the screaming – “All of them, they were on top of him. He was under [them]… they were hitting like [he was] an enemy. I’ve never seen something like that”.
Abdirahman died in hospital the next day. The cause of death was announced to be a hypoxic brain injury following a heart attack.
Abdirahman came to Canada in 2009 because he saw it as a place of freedom and safety. He suffered serious mental health issues but had maintained good relationships with his neighbours who knew him to be a gentleman and “a very peaceful guy”. Miriam Ali told CBC “I have children in the building and he walks around, he’s good with the kids, he’s good with all the neighbours, never a problem”.
The same day as the incident at Bridgehead coffee shop, Abdirahman had gone to the Hintonburg Community Centre seemingly hoping to speak to someone at the community police depot. An employee at the Centre, Caolan Cullum, spoke to him and found him ‘very incomprehensible’ but he didn’t find Abdirahman to be violent or threatening at any point. He was familiar with the behaviour being displayed as his work involved helping people with mental health issues.
Abdirahman had however been taken off his medication a few weeks prior to incident and whilst waiting for support, the first police officer to respond (Dave Weir) and witnesses observed Abdirahman not complying with orders and picking up a 30-pound road construction weight.
In the aftermath of the incident, two primary issues came to the forefront: race and mental health. These were not new concerns. Only a year earlier Andrew Loku, a 45-year-old black man with a mental illness, died after a confrontation with Toronto police.
Protests on race-based police brutality followed Abdirahman’s death. The Ottawa police service declined to comment on whether either the mental illness or race had played a part in the incident, stating only that their officers were trained to de-escalate situations involving people with mental illness.
The Bridgehead coffee shop also failed to engage in the important dialogue on racism. The founder, Tracey Clark, stated on the radio that there had been a “real minimisation of what the staff or the customers in the store experienced… What happened in the store was an assault and escalating situation”. Tracey has since apologised, highlighting how the café will actively be taking actions to become anti-racist, including reviewing the hiring process and training.
Abdirahman’s death was investigated by Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, a civilian body responsible for investigating deaths and injury resulting from police intervention. Campaign organisations such as Amnesty International requested that racism, implicit or explicit, be addressed.
The investigation took seven months, at the end of which Constable Daniel Montsion was charged with manslaughter, aggravated assault, and assault with a weapon. This was the only information contained within the SIU news release, the SIU director’s report not being made public (this has only happened once, in a redacted form, for the investigation into the aforementioned death of Andrew Loku). The family were nevertheless happy to hear about the charges and “anxiously” awaited the result of the court case to follow, that would be an even longer process.
The trial started three years after Abdirahman’s death, on 4 February 2019, a delay that garnered criticism from the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, considering the profile and impact of the case. The family’s lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon was also critical of the steps that had been taken to relieve the backlog of cases. “It’s an awful long time for a bereaved family to wait for a criminal process to take place, to wait for a process that they hope will get them some answers to their questions”. The decision of Justice Robert Kelly was announced on 20 October 2020.
The central issue was whether Abdirahman’s injuries had been caused by the blows inflicted by Montsion who was wearing steel plated gloves, and whether those injuries led to his death and ultimately whether there had been an unlawful act – an “unjustified assault”. Were his actions a significant departure from how the reasonable police officer would have acted in the same situation?
Justice Kelly was left with reasonable doubt as to all three charges and announced Montsion’s full acquittal over a Zoom conference. It was disputed whether the steel-plated gloves could be said to be weapons considering that they are standard issue for police officers and intended as protective equipment. Abdirahman’s underlying heart condition was also capitalised upon by the defence who pointed to emotional and physical stressors that directly preceded his heart attack, all of which cast doubt on whether Montsion’s blows were fatal.
The view is that verdict has let down the community. Ottawa city councillor, Jeff Leiper has called the judgment “an indictment of our city and country”. Greenspon has said that “the family did not expect the criminal justice system would be the means to effecting change”. In the [post-verdict reaction posted by the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition] he expressed that the system is not “designed to try and repair the injustice that is experienced on the daily basis”.
The family, praised for their strength and the love that they promote, have sought to create a peaceful and productive platform in the wake of the judgment, along with lodging a $1.5 million civil lawsuit.