This week the Canadian Black Lives Matter movement was forced to adopt yet another hashtag highlighting tragedy in the black community.
#JusticeforAbdirahman was created to demand accountability in the death of Abdirahman Abdi, a Somali Canadian man who was beaten by Ottawa police Sunday, and appeared to be left lying in handcuffs for about ten minutes before receiving CPR. He was later pronounced dead.
Abdi, 37, lived in the Hintonburg neighbourhood; he was believed to have had a mental illness and was described by one neighbour as a "very peaceful guy" and a gentleman. On Sunday morning, police responding to reports of groping at a Hintonburg coffee shop found Abdi and began chasing him. Speaking to the media, witnesses have said Abdi was pepper-sprayed and beaten with batons, as well as kicked and punched, with heavy blows delivered to his face and neck.
A video shot from a balcony above the scene and published by the Ottawa Citizen shows Abdi handcuffed and laying face down on the pavement, bleeding.
He was taken to hospital and pronounced dead on Monday. However, a spokeswoman for the family said he had actually been dead 45 minutes prior to being assessed by doctors on Sunday.
The province's police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, is now investigating the incident and neither police nor the SIU is commenting. But some members of the Somali Canadian community and Black Lives Matter are saying the death shows race-based police brutality is just as much of a problem here as it is south of the border. The Ottawa Police Association has denied that charge.
Based on our limited knowledge of how things unfolded Sunday, there are several tough questions that warrant explanations:
What threat did Abdi pose?
Ottawa police beat Abdi to death, hitting him with enough force to cause him to bleed and eventually die of his injuries. Why? There is no indication that Abdi was armed at the time the incident took place. Witnesses saw him holding up a foam block over his head, as if to protect himself against an officer who was chasing him with a baton; another officer apparently pulled up in a car beside him and immediately became violent.
"The officer emerged from that car very rapidly ... immediately jumped into the altercation and administered a number of very heavy blows to the head and face and neck of Mr. Abdi," bystander Ross McGhie told the CBC.
Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, said officers were called to a "violent incident" that they had to contain.
"The officers were experiencing a male that was assaultive in behaviour. So they are required, they're bound to react to that, they have to react to that, they have to contain that," he said in a radio interview with CBC's All In a Day. What remains unclear is how Abdi was acting "violent" and how it could have justified the extremely violent response police gave.
Did the cops know Abdi was mentally ill?
"He's mentally ill, I saw the whole thing. You beat up handicap people!" one bystander to Abdi's death can be heard shouting during the video that shows him bleeding on the ground. Speaking to the Citizen, Zainab Abdallah said she saw the attack go down and told officers Abdi was mentally ill. Skof told CBC he didn't know whether or not the cops were aware of Abdi's mental health issues but "it doesn't really change in any way the decision that you are going to have to make to ensure public safety." He said the officers have a duty to prevent "more injuries to members of the public, to the subject or suspect themselves, as well as the officers." But this isn't the first time cops' ability to de-escalate situations involving mentally ill citizens has been called into question. A coroner's inquest ruled the 2014 shooting death of Toronto man Jermaine Carby, 33, was a homicide. Carby was shot multiple times and killed by officers after being carded at a traffic stop. The Carby inquest recommended police be better trained for "unconscious bias, mental health issues, de-escalation and use of force."
Why did it take so long to get Abdi medical attention?
The video shows Abdi was laying facedown on the ground handcuffed, his blood pooling, as a couple of officers crouched beside him offering no medical assistance. At one point, two officers attempt to push him onto his side.The footage rolls for 10 minutes before paramedics on scene begin performing CPR, with witnesses shouting, "Where's all the police, where's the ambulance? He's gonna die" and "Oh my god, he's going to bleed to death." On Monday, Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau told the Citizen officers did attempt CPR and called for paramedics 23 seconds after Abdi collapsed. A spokesman for the family told reporters Abdi had "been already dead 45 minutes before he arrived on care of the doctors" and yet the family wasn't notified of his death until Monday. This raises two questions: why did it take so long for a man who was in critical condition to receive medical attention; and why did health officials delay telling his family he was dead by an entire day?
Did police tell bystanders not to call paramedics and to put their phones away?
The Citizen interviewed witnesses who said cops tried to take their cellphones away because they were recording the incident. If true, this is an infringement on civil liberties, and the cops should have to answer for it. According to PEN Canada, "it is not a crime in Canada for anyone to photograph a uniformed police officer, as long as the photographer does not obstruct or interfere with the execution of their duties; and it is a violation of their Charter rights to prevent anyone from doing so."
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