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'Systemic racism' rife in Thunder Bay police

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Police investigations into the deaths of nine indigenous people in Thunder Bay, Ont. were so problematic—in part because of systemic racism—that they should be reinvestigated, an independent review released yesterday recommends.

The recommendation by Ontario's police watchdog is one of 44 in a report that concludes the city's police service is rife with racist attitudes.

“The failure to conduct adequate investigations and the premature conclusions drawn in these cases is, at least in part, attributable to racist attitudes and racial stereotyping,” the report found.

“Officers repeatedly relied on generalized notions about how indigenous people likely came to their deaths and acted, or refrained from acting, based on those biases.”

The 206-page report by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director calls the findings deeply troubling.

In a statement, Thunder Bay Police Chief Sylvie Hauth acknowledged unspecified “systemic barriers in policing” that must be addressed.

However, she said the service needed time to study the report as it “continues to work towards bias-free policing.”

The grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, an organization representing First Nation communities in Northern Ontario, said he fully endorsed the report but called Hauth's statement “disappointing” for failing to acknowledge the racism findings.

“If you're serious about addressing the issues that the report raises, you need to acknowledge them first,” Alvin Fiddler said in an interview.

“On top of that list is systemic racism.”

The OIPRD began the probe of Thunder Bay's police service in November, 2016. The report found the state of relations between police and First Nations to be one of crisis.

In all, director Gerry McNeilly's team delved into 37 investigations by police involving sudden indigenous deaths going back to 2009.

The probe also looked into the deaths of seven indigenous youth that became the subject of a coroner's inquest.

Among its findings, the report, entitled “Broken Trust,” concluded that police investigators lacked experience in sudden death or homicide investigations.

In some cases, they didn't even access autopsy results or understand them when they did.

In all, the investigations frequently were shoddy, the report found.

“Investigators failed to know what was in their own investigative file, including supplementary occurrence reports filed by uniform patrol officers,” McNeilly wrote.

“Investigators failed on an unacceptably high number of occasions to treat or protect the deceased and his or her family equally and without discrimination because the deceased was indigenous,” he added.

The director also recommended the possibility of reinvestigating other deaths, including that of Stacy DeBungee, 41, of Rainy River First Nation, who was found dead on the banks of the McIntrye River in 2015.

Within three hours of finding his body, the police service issued a statement saying the death “did not appear suspicious.”

In an earlier finding released this year, McNeilly concluded the investigation into the DeBungee death was grossly inadequate.

In their defence, the police service and its officers explained they were overworked and lacked training and resources. While partly sympathetic, McNeilly rejected the excuses.

“These explanations cannot fully account for the failings we observed, given their nature and severity,” he said.

“I find systemic racism exists in TBPS at an institutional level.”

McNeilly, who stressed not all Thunder Bay officers are racist, traces the “broken” relationship between indigenous people and police to colonialist policies and the fact that police have been used to implement the policies.

The upshot, he said, is that a “crisis of trust” afflicting the relationship was palpable.

Other recommendations include increased staffing and restructuring of the service's main crime units on an urgent basis, enhanced case management, mandating name tags for officers to wear, and requiring officers to disclose potential evidence of police misconduct.

The report also called for an end to systemic racism in the force. It wants to see implementation of psychological testing designed to eliminate racist applicants on a priority basis.

“[Police] leadership should publicly and formally acknowledge that racism exists at all levels within the police service and it will not tolerate racist views or actions,” the report recommended.

Chief Robin McGinnis, of the Rainy River First Nations, said the director's findings validated what the community long has maintained.

McGinnis called on the police leadership to admit the existence of racism and pledge to fix the problem.

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