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Somali community demands answers after altercation with police leaves mentally ill man dead in Canada

Abdirahman Abdi died in hospital on Monday, after he was arrested by Ottawa police on Sunday. Cellphone video shows Abdi face-down on the pavement, his pants around his ankles, bleeding as cops put him in handcuffs.

by Hilary Beaumont
Jul 25 2016, 6:50pm

A screenshot of the video obtained by Postmedia

A Canadian Muslim group is calling for a thorough investigation into the death of 37-year-old Abdirahman Abdi, a Somali Canadian who died Monday after what witnesses described as a violent altercation with Ottawa Police.

"It is critical that a full and transparent investigation be swiftly conducted so that Mr. Abdi's family, and the wider community, get clear answers," the National Council of Canadian Muslims said in a statement Tuesday, adding that the investigation should look into whether prejudice played a role in how he was treated.

But Abdourahman Kahin, head of a group called Muslim Presence, told the Canadian Press it's too early to know whether the officers were racially motivated. "We condemn the brutality of the police — 100 percent condemn — but don't put the color of the victim [first]," he said.

Meanwhile Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, told CBC Radio that "to suggest that race was an issue in this, it's inappropriate. The officers were called to the scene. The officers had to attend. Race, in this case, is a fact, just like your age, your gender, your height. It doesn't have anything to do with our decision-making. Our decision-making is based on our training, and our training has nothing to do with race."

Ontario's Special Investigations Unit is investigating the altercation, which they say began when someone called police at 9:30 am Sunday morning to report a man "causing a disturbance." Shortly after, police arrived on the scene, chased the man and confronted him.


City councillor Jeff Leiper called it "a very rough confrontation."

"Several descriptions have been provided of the police striking him, which need to be investigated," Leiper wrote in a blog post. "There have been multiple accounts given that he has a mental illness, and that mental capacity likely played a role in today's events."

"Where's all the police, where's the ambulance? He's going to die!"

Several witnesses told Postmedia he was beaten by several officers who kicked, punched and hit him with batons. There were also reports that Abdi, who was described as having a mental illness, was pepper-sprayed.

"They hit, they hit, they hit, they hit everywhere. Then he was unconscious," one witness told Postmedia.

Related: Black and Hispanic people more likely to be victims of police brutality, study says

A witness video obtained by Postmedia shows the aftermath of the confrontation. The video, shot from a balcony above, shows a black man face down on the pavement below, motionless, with his hands cuffed behind his back.

"Oh my god, he's going to bleed to death," a woman says as the video begins.

Two white police officers lean over the man's body. Then they walk away and appear to leave him alone for a moment.

"Are those police?" A child asks, off camera.

The man's right arm moves slightly. "I think he's dead," another voice says.

"Where's all the police, where's the ambulance? He's going to die!" the first woman says, more urgently. "He's bleeding."

Two officers then return but struggle to lift him and turn him over onto his side. They don't perform CPR and don't appear to offer any medical assistance. Spots of blood cover his blue shirt.

Related: It's Impossible To Find Out Exactly How Many People Are Shot By Cops in Canada

"He's mentally ill!" another woman yells.

"Maybe the ambulances are late," the child says, a few moments later.

Paramedics arrive on the scene. They talk for a few moments and put on purple gloves before attending to the man. Then a paramedic checks his pulse. An officer uncuffs the man's hands, and the paramedic rolls him onto his back and cuts open his shirt.

A full 10 minutes pass from the beginning of the video to the time the man receives CPR.

Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau extended his condolences to Abdi's family Monday night and said the Special Investigations Unit must be allowed to investigate, the Ottawa Citizen reported. "We need to let the SIU do their investigation and determine exactly what took place, but we've reached out to the family through [the] SIU to support and provide victim counseling services and we'll let the SIU do their work."

Marie-Josee Houle, Executive director of the OCISO Non-Profit Housing Corporation, said they had handed over video of the altercation to the SIU.

OCISO Services is working with the immigrants and refugees who live in the building to provide resources if they have concerns "about the greater issue at hand," she said.

This isn't the first time that Ontario police have had violent interactions with black and non-white civilians, especially those with mental health issues. But, because no agency collects consistent or complete data on use of force and race, it is impossible to determine how often racial minorities are injured or killed by police.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @HilaryBeaumont

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