The province’s police watchdog has cleared London, Ont., police officers in the falling death of a 27-year-old man in May.
Caleb Tubila Njoko died in hospital three days after falling from a balcony at his mother’s Walnut Street apartment building during an interaction with officers on May 5.
On Thursday, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) made public its report into the incident, saying officers had responded to 85 Walnut St. around 11:15 p.m. that day following a call from a woman who expressed concern about her son’s well-being.
The SIU report says the woman wanted officers to take her son, who had been “behaving strangely and damaging property in her apartment,” to be examined by mental health officials.
In an interview with 980 CFPL earlier this year, Njoko’s mother, Nelly Wendo, said she had taken her son in after being contacted by his friends, who said he had started acting out.
In an interview with Global News about the SIU’s decision, Wendo said, “I called the ambulance to take my son back to the hospital for the doctor to check my son’s mental problems… I did not call for them to take him in jail.”
Wendo said the police presence scared her son and does not understand why officers were the ones sent to help with a mental health crisis.
“Caleb is now a spirit and he was a strong boy — Caleb you are very strong,” Wendo said remembering her son.
When two witness officers arrived at Wendo’s 15th-floor unit, the SIU says a shirtless Njoko confronted them when they partially opened the door, and attempted to force the door closed as an officer tried to push the door open.
While officers told Njoko through the door that he wasn’t in trouble and that they had been called there to help him, Njoko didn’t respond, and barricaded the door from the other side using furniture, the SIU said, adding officers could only open the door “a few centimetres” after unlocking it with another person’s key.
Three other witness officers were requested to the scene, along with the subject officer who the SIU says was the most senior officer there, and an unsuccessful attempt was made to use a battering ram to force the door open. An officer trying to speak to Njoko through the narrow opening was met with silence, the SIU says.
Investigators say both Wendo and the subject officer managed to contact Njoko by phone, with the officer asking the 27-year-old to come to the door and talk. Njoko, the report says, responded that he was relaxing and having a cigarette, had no intention of hurting himself, and would come out shortly.
Officers learned soon after that Njoko was sitting on the northeast corner railing of his mother’s balcony, smoking a cigarette, with his legs dangling over the side. He claimed he was fine and “would soon jump from the building,” the report says.
One of the witness officers inside the building exited to keep watch on the balcony and report what he saw.
Not long afterward, Njoko began scaling down to the 14th-floor balcony, and then the 13th-floor, the report says.
“Do you want to start EMS here, he has not dropped yet, but we are going to need some help here,” the witness officer outside is heard saying on the radio, according to the SIU.
As Njoko was trying to scale to the 12th-floor balcony, he lost his grip and fell to the ground, the report says. Outside the building, one witness officer performed CPR before paramedics arrived. About 18 minutes had passed between officers arriving and Njoko falling.
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Njoko was taken to hospital where he died of his injuries on May 8, the result of multiple trauma as a consequence of a descent from height, according to the autopsy.
In his decision, SIU Director Joseph Martino says his assessment of the evidence found no reasonable grounds to believe that the subject officer had committed a criminal offence in relation to Njoko’s death — namely criminal negligence causing death.
“Liability for the crime is predicated, in part, on conduct that amounts to a marked and substantial departure from the level of care that a reasonable person would have observed in the circumstances,” Martino writes.
“In the instant case, the question is essentially this: did the involved officers contribute to the Complainant’s fall via a want of care that was so derelict as to attract criminal sanction? In my view, they did not.”
Martino says officers did what they could to engage Njoko through the door of his mother’s apartment, speaking in “reassuring tones” to get him to come to the door and leave the unit. He adds that one witness officer was a trained negotiator, and that the subject officer “seemed to be making some progress” in resolving the incident through her phone call to Njoko.
“In hindsight, that may have been a lost opportunity. That said, I am unable to fault the officers for making the decision they did at the time. They were unaware of the scope of the Complainant’s mental distress, and could reasonably surmise that forcing the issue at that moment might have resulted in more harm than good.”
It’s not clear why officers didn’t enter the neighbours apartment to use their balcony and speak with Njoko. Regardless, Martino says Njoko was fearful of police, and upon learning they were outside the apartment, barricaded himself in the unit.
“In the circumstances, though they did not know it at the time, it was entirely possible that a more proactive posture at the moment might well have unduly provoked the Complainant,” Martino writes.
Wendo told 980 CFPL earlier this year that she believed Njoko had barricaded himself in the apartment due to a run-in he had with police a week earlier.
Njoko had allegedly tried, unsuccessfully, to steal a pizza delivery driver’s vehicle and then resist arrest. The matter was still before the courts when Njoko died. Court records show the 27-year-old had seen several run-ins with police over the last three years, including for assault, breach of recognizance, theft of property under $5,000, and uttering a threat to cause death.
In his closing paragraph, Martino says he was unable to conclude that any officers at the scene had “transgressed the limits of care” prescribed by criminal law, adding that while officers may have been able to do more to mobilize mental health supports, that effort was impacted by how quickly the incident progressed.
“In the short time they had available to deal with the situation, the officers acted with due regard for the Complainant’s health and safety… In the circumstances, I am satisfied that the police response fell short of constituting a marked and substantial departure from a reasonable level of care in the circumstances.”
Wendo spoke to the crowd of an estimated 10,000 people at the Black Lives Matter rally in June about her son’s death.
Organizers of Black Lives Matter groups across North America are calling for governments to relocate funding from police departments to better support services like mental health support.
BLM organizers have stated police are not the best ones to respond to mental health issues. The London Police Services Association and Board have both said on separate occasions they agree with that statement.
The London Police Services Board will vote Thursday on whether or not to reallocate $500,000 from the LPS Operating Budget to fund four salaries for a Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST).
The board said the new model would partner specially-trained police officers with mental health practitioners to attend calls for service involving persons in crisis and support community and health-centred solutions rather than criminal justice-centred solutions.
Njoko’s death came weeks before that of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto, a matter also probed by the Special Investigations Unit.
Late last month, the SIU released its report into the incident, clearing Toronto police of wrongdoing.
The SIU report found Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death while trying to sidestep onto a neighbour’s balcony on the evening of May 27, after she, her brother and her mother each called 911 over an argument that had turned physical.
Martino said the officers tried to de-escalate the situation and “though their efforts were unsuccessful,” none of them broke the law.
— With files from The Canadian Press