Thunder Bay Police officers who investigated Indigenous man’s 2015 death to face disciplinary proceedings

An adjudicator has ruled that three Thunder Bay Police Service officers who were involved in what was found to be a deficient sudden death investigation of an Indigenous man will face disciplinary proceedings.

Retired judge Lee Ferrier has granted an extension for a Police Services Act notice of hearing to be filed against the officers involved in the 2015 investigation into the death of Stacy DeBungee, 41. The hearing was held last week. 

DeBungee’s body was found in the McIntyre River on the morning of Oct. 15, 2015. Within a few hours, Thunder Bay Police Service issued a media release to say the death was not believed to be suspicious, and the next day, before an autopsy was conducted, police said that the death appeared to be non-criminal.

OIPRD reviewed investigation

The Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) reviewed the Thunder Bay Police Service’s investigation after receiving a complaint from DeBungee’s family and home community of Rainy River First Nations in 2016.

The OIPRD report, which was released in February 2018, identified several deficiencies in the investigation and said that officers pre-determined that DeBungee had been intoxicated and rolled into the river.

The report found that officers failed to follow up with witnesses and pursue other leads, including a potential deathbed confession from somebody claiming to have pushed DeBungee into the river.

The OIPRD found that allegations of neglect of duty and discreditable conduct were substantiated against two officers. An allegation of neglect of duty was substantiated against a third officer.

An adjudicator has ruled that three Thunder Bay police officers will face disciplinary proceedings for their roles in the investigation into DeBungee’s 2015 death, which the OIPRD found to have several deficiencies. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

Case a ‘poster child’ for what’s wrong with policing: lawyers

Under the Police Services Act, a notice of hearing must be filed within six months of the initial complaint being received, otherwise an extension must be granted by the police services board.

In this matter, the Thunder Bay Police Services Board, which at the time was under investigation by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission, in 2018 requested the appointment of a disinterested person to hear the matter, which led to the selection of Ferrier as adjudicator. 

The extension hearing was held virtually last week — on Feb. 10 — following a lengthy legal battle involving the CBC about whether it should have been open to the public.

Lawyers for the DeBungee family and Rainy River First Nation argued at last week’s hearing that the case was a “poster child” for what was wrong with policing in Thunder Bay and that the officers couldn’t be given a pass based on a technicality.

Report outlined systemic racism in force

The DeBungee case led to a broader systemic review of the police service by the OIPRD, which released a report outlining systemic racism within the force, particularly when it came to death investigations involving Indigenous people.

The lawyer for the officers countered that it had been nearly five years since the initial complaint was lodged, with the OIPRD review taking nearly two years, and that this amounted to an unreasonable delay.

In his 17-page decision, Ferrier found the delays were reasonable, and there is a public interest in police misconduct hearings being adjudicated.

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