The trial of a police officer charged with killing a Somali-Canadian man during an arrest began in an Ottawa courtroom on Monday.
Ottawa Police Service Cst. Daniel Montsion pleaded not guilty to one count each of manslaughter, aggravated assault, and assault with a weapon in the death of 37-year-old Abdirahman Abdi.
Abdi was killed on July 24, 2016 while being pinned down by police outside an apartment building in Hintonburg, an affluent neighbourhood in Ottawa’s downtown west side. He was alleged to have been harassing and groping customers at a nearby coffee shop before police were called. In the process of the arrest, police reportedly used pepper spray and a baton, and also kicked and punched him.
“This trial is about an arrest gone bad, an arrest that resulted in the death of Abdirahman Abdi,” Crown prosecutor Philip Perlmutter told Judge Robert Kelly. “From the Crown’s perspective almost all the evidence is uncomplicated. The story of what happened is clear, and at the end of the day the outcome of this trial turns on the answers to two questions: did the accused, Daniel Montsion, use excessive force in arresting Mr. Abdi, and did the accused cause Mr. Abdi’s death.”
Montsion sat quietly in court, wearing a pair of dark sunglasses, speaking only to enter his not guilty plea. He was accompanied by Ottawa Police Association boss Matt Skof, who is currently facing unrelated legal troubles of his own.
The Crown alleges that the use of force caused Abdi’s death. Montsion’s lawyer, Michael Edelson, refused to speak with media outside the courthouse on Monday, but in a 2017 hearing he argued before a judge that Abdi’s death was caused by a heart attack, not the use of force. The crown countered in today’s trial that the use of force contributed to the heart attack, since Abdi had a pre-existing heart conditions.
Court to be shown video; more evidence expected
While the Crown was able to make its opening arguments outlining the structure of the case, the court was only shown a small amount of evidence on Monday, as technical issues and concerns over the space took up the majority of the day. They were shown, however, Abdi’s blood-stained pants as well as Montsion’s blood-stained shirt, pants, and the carbon-reinforced “assault gloves” that he was wearing while he punched Abdi in the head.
Much of the case is expected to hinge on video evidence of Abdi’s death. While cell-phone footage of the altercation has been published online, one key piece of evidence that will be shown to the judge is a lengthy CCTV video located in the alcove where Abdi died. Only a few people have seen that video, almost all of them either law enforcement or lawyers. But Heather Badenoch, a communications consultant in Ottawa, has also seen the video while working with the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization. She told the CBC in 2017 that “the video is incredibly violent.”
“When Abdi is lying on the ground, face down and still, the constable who has been charged punches him in the head very violently, twice, and we never see Abdi move again,” she said in 2017. (VICE reached out to Badenoch to discuss the video again, but she said she “felt like it was important to speak the truth at the time, but feel like my role in this is over.”)
One of the charges Montsion is facing—assault with a weapon—is based on allegations that he was wearing carbon-reinforced “assault gloves,” which are standard issue, at the time. In response, the Ottawa Police Service ordered an audit of the force’s use of the gloves. Perlmutter argued that the gloves were “not issued or sanctioned by the Ottawa Police Service for use as a weapon.”
'It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone'
The trial is a long-awaited one in the city. The case has galvanized the Somali-Canadian population in Ottawa, raising questions about racial equality and the treatment of Black Canadians in the nation’s capital.
It also comes amid challenging times for the Ottawa Police Service. Abdi is one of four people to have been killed in an altercation with Ottawa police in the last three years, and the trial is beginning only days after police shot and killed 30-year-old Greg Ritchie, an Ojibwe man with mental health issues, in an altercation on the morning of January 31—a death that has outraged the city’s Indigenous population.
The police union boss, Matt Skof, was also arrested by the Ontario Provincial Police on January 23 and charged with breach of trust and obstructing justice. The OPP hasn’t provided any details regarding his arrest, but it is believed to stem from leaked recordings in which Skof allegedly made unsubstantiated claims about the then-chair of the police board, Eli El-Chantiry.
For racialized minorities in the city, the Abdi trial is expected to be challenging. Ketcia Peters, former community co-chair of the Ottawa Police Equity Council, said “It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone. There’s not going to be winners coming out of this, whether we’re talking about the community, or the police service.” Still, she said, seeing Montsion stand trial will, she hopes, bring some clarity to a situation which has been a flash point for the conversation about racism and policing in the city.
“For the past couple years, we’ve had different context and information in the court of public opinion, but now we get to know what really happened,” she said outside the courthouse on Monday. “We’ve had conversations around racial profiling, which was a prevalent issue way before the case of Abdirahman Abdi, but it was always ignored. It was never brought to the surface as a serious topic. … Now the community, the city, and the country is paying attention to the real issue of racial profiling.”
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