Ottawa city council will consider a motion next week that could spark a change in the police response to mental health crises as the community comes to terms with the full acquittal of the officer charged in connection with the death of Abdirahman Abdi.
An Ontario court justice found Const. Daniel Montsion not guilty of manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon on Tuesday, ending the long criminal trial over what has become one of Ottawa’s highest-profile examples of police violence.
Judge Robert Kelly found there was “reasonable doubt” that Montsion’s actions led to Abdi’s death following a violent arrest outside the victim’s Hintonburg apartment in July 2016.
The Justice for Abdirahman Coalition joined with others in the community at Ottawa’s Confederation Park Tuesday evening for a demonstration of solidarity.
Members of the coalition such as Dahabo Ahmed-Omer expressed their exhaustion in labouring for justice and police reform over the past four years, only to be met with a full acquittal.
“We have tried over and over and over again. We have tried speaking to institutions, we have tried drafting reports, we have tried changing legislation, we have tried calling out policies,” Ahmed-Omer said. “We have tried. What else do you need from us?”
Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, who was among the gathered crowd at Confederation Park on Tuesday, says the ruling was a “very difficult verdict to accept.”
Abdi suffered from undisclosed mental health issues before his death, according to his family.
When the police call came down in response to reports Abdi was causing a disturbance at a Bridgehead Coffee shop, McKenney says it was an example of criminalizing mental health.
Matt Skof, head of the Ottawa Police Association, told Global News after Tuesday’s verdict that Montsion and his colleagues were not responding to a mental health call, but rather a criminal matter, as reports indicated Abdi was groping patrons of the coffee shop.
Skof said Tuesday the response would not have been different today compared with four years ago, though he noted the force is working on improving its training to deal with mental health crises.
McKenney says that line of thinking will not change the outcome for the next person suffering from mental illness who might have the police called on them.
“It’s not enough to say we would do the same thing again. We cannot allow that kind of response to happen again in this city,” the councillor says.
To McKenney, issues such as mental health, homelessness and drug addiction require responses separate from the police.
“We can’t continue to respond to issues of inequity and health with police calls. It’s unfair to police and it’s unfair to the people that we’re calling on,” McKenney says.
“How do we do things differently? How do we respond to mental health crises? How do we respond to people who are not well? COVID, poverty, addictions… it’s often not a police response that we need.”
McKenney and Capital Coun. Shawn Menard are putting forward a motion at the Oct. 28 meeting of council asking the Ottawa Police Services Board (OPSB) to hold public consultations and produce a report outlining alternative models of community safety responses.
The result could see response teams formed that are not led by police and that don’t include weapons or violence for situations where public safety isn’t at risk.
Crisis intervention teams exist in Toronto and Hamilton, where mental health or social workers often respond to calls with specially trained or plain-clothes police officers. OPS has a similar memorandum of understanding with The Ottawa Hospital.
McKenney says they’ve heard from small business owners that they want someone they can call other than the police or bylaw if someone is sleeping on their property or causing a minor disturbance.
McKenney and Menard put forward a proposal at last week’s council meeting that would have seen part of the planned increase to the Ottawa police budget given instead to Ottawa Public Health, but the motion was defeated in a 20-4 vote.
McKenney tells Global News they believe this motion will fare better. They say members of the OPSB and its chair, Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans, are serious about police reform and will take the “hard look” needed to address systemic issues in local policing.
Asked whether they believe the Montsion verdict can motivate structural change in policing and criminal justice, McKenney says yes.
“I have to believe that to continue to do my job,” they say.
Nothing will bring back Abdi, but McKenney believes changes like the ones they are proposing at next week’s council meeting are steps towards making Ottawa a more equitable city.
“I wasn’t in Bridgehead that day. Because Mr. Abdi is no longer with us, we will never get a full understanding of exactly what happened. But I can tell you, if we really did not have a system that did not have systemic racism attached to it and if we really had a system where we had an alternate response, I do believe the outcome would have been different,” McKenney says.