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Officer who investigated Indigenous man's death demoted, family says more needed

A Thunder Bay Police Service logo is shown in a handout. An Ontario agency that oversees complaints against police has demoted an officer who was found guilty of investigating with bias the 2015 death of an Indigenous man in Thunder Bay. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

An officer found guilty of investigating an Indigenous man's death with bias has been demoted and must undergo cultural competency training – a penalty the man's family says isn't enough to deter similar behaviour in the future. 

The Office of the Independent Police Review Director ruled on Friday that Shawn Harrison has been demoted to sergeant but can return to his rank of staff sergeant after 18 months if his disciplinary record remains unblemished. Harrison has to go through Indigenous cultural competency training as well, it said.

Harrison was leading the investigation into the October 2015 death of Stacey DeBungee in Thunder Bay, Ont.

DeBungee's body was spotted in the McIntyre River by a passerby. Three hours later, police issued a statement deeming the death non-suspicious. An autopsy had not been completed at the time.

"Staff Sergeant Harrison allowed his unconscious bias toward Indigenous people to adversely affect his ability to behave in a professional manner," Greg Walton, who presided over Harrison's disciplinary hearing, wrote in his decision.

"Undoubtedly, DeBungee’s death has had devastating effects on the lives of many ... I will not find Staff Sergeant Harrison accountable for systemic issues, but he must be answerable for the decisions he made."

Harrison was found guilty last year of neglect of duty and discreditable conduct. 

A review of the steps he took after DeBungee's body was discovered found the officer's unconscious bias led him to conduct a grossly deficient investigation.

Police ignored a witness who wanted to speak to investigators about what happened while they were alone with DeBungee before he was found. The 2022 decision also said police took no video, photographs or measurements of the river and gave no thought to securing the area until an autopsy had been done. 

A private investigator hired by DeBungee's family also found his debit card was used after his death but police did not pursue the lead.

The 2022 decision stated "investigators concluded that because people had consumed alcohol to such an extent that they passed out, rolled into the river and drowned in the past, that that is what had occurred in this instance."

Walton noted in his decision on Friday that, at the time of DeBungee's death, the inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations youths who died under circumstances similar to one another in Thunder Bay was also in progress.

"This is an aggravating feature," Walton said. "I simply cannot comprehend how an officer could have been so oblivious to the scrutiny that would accompany this investigation." 

Walton also noted that it is a serious concern that Harrison has still not acknowledged how he could have done better.

"Staff Sergeant Harrison testified that other than not meeting with (a witness), he conducted and supervised the sudden death investigation properly," Walton said.

Although a review of DeBungee's death investigation found numerous shortcomings, Harrison "concluded his investigation was flawless," even though he was given ample opportunities to acknowledge his mistakes, Walton said.

"This is troubling."

Lawyers representing DeBungee's family – who wanted the officer terminated – said on the family's behalf that the demotion was not enough to deter similar behaviour in the future and called it a missed opportunity to address larger issues between Indigenous people and police.

"The DeBungee family was hopeful that a serious message would be sent to Staff Sergeant Harrison and other Thunder Bay Police Service members that this type of discriminatory investigation would not be tolerated," Falconers LLP wrote in a written statement.

A lawyer with the firm added that Harrison's demotion has left the DeBungee family in a position where they do not know, and likely will never know, what happened to DeBungee. 

"The family deserved better," said Asha James.

Walton said in his decision he decided not to terminate Harrison after investigating various aspects of the case, including Harrison's employment history, his ability for rehabilitation, and how the death has affected Thunder Bay police's and Harrison's reputation.

"I must avoid using Staff Sergeant Harrison as a 'scapegoat,'" Walton wrote. "Staff Sergeant Harrison was not a rogue actor, he was limited by the systems built around him; he cannot bear the sole blame for the systemic issues that existed at the time."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6, 2023.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

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