Ottawa police move forward on mental health strategy after settling Abdi family lawsuit

WARNING: This video contains disturbing content. Ottawa Police Const. Daniel Montsion has been found not guilty in the death of Abdirahman Abdi. The Black man died after a violent arrest in July 2016. Mike Le Couteur reports on how the case centred on Montsion's use of force during the arrest, and the reaction to the verdict.

The family of Abdirahman Abdi has settled its civil action against the Ottawa Police Service, hoping the legacy of Abdi’s death will be an improved response to mental health crises in the city.

Diane Deans, chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, said in her update at Monday’s meeting that the force had come to a “mutual agreement” with Abdi’s family to conclude legal action.

Details of the settlement will not be made public, Deans said.

But in a joint statement with the OPS, the Abdi family indicated support of the force’s direction on addressing mental health crises.

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“The parties mutually agree that change and significant improvements to the way police respond to individuals experiencing mental health events in our community is necessary and needs to take place in the immediate future,” the statement read.

“The Abdi family is encouraged by the Board and OPS’s stated intention to work in partnership with the community to develop and implement a new Mental Health Response Strategy to improve community safety and wellbeing for all residents of Ottawa, and asks the community to work cooperatively in pursuit of this goal. Ensuring better future outcomes will be an important legacy of Abdirahman’s life.”

Abdi, a 37-year-old Somali-Canadian man, died in 2016 following a violent arrest outside his Hintonburg apartment. His death became one of Ottawa’s highest profile cases of police violence.

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The victim’s mental wellness had been a topic of debate during the criminal trial of the officer charged in his death as his family revealed during the proceedings that he was facing an undisclosed mental illness.

Abdi’s erratic behaviour at a nearby coffee shop, where reports indicate he had groped multiple patrons, prompted the call to police.

Surveillance video of the arrest showed OPS Const. Daniel Montsion struck Abdi multiple times with reinforced gloves in an attempt to subdue the man.

Abdi sustained injuries to his face and suffered a heart attack during the arrest. He died the following day in hospital as a result of brain hypoxia, the court heard during the trial.

Last October, Montsion was found not guilty of manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon in Abdi’s death.

Lawrence Greenspon, the lawyer for Abdi’s family, said after the verdict came down that the family did not expect to find justice in the criminal trial and highlighted the civil litigation as a path forward.

“The family did not expect that the criminal justice system would be the way to resolve the systemic problems, including the challenges of dealing with those people who have mental health issues,” he said.

Consultations to begin in spring on new mental health strategy

The 2021 Ottawa Police Services budget includes $1.5 million in spending on a new mental health strategy, which could see police integrated with social services providers to respond to crisis calls.

OPS Chief Peter Sloly will outline the consultation approach the local service will use in developing the new strategy later on Monday evening, though numerous delegates spoke earlier in the meeting against any police involvement in mental health responses going forward.

The council will consist of five organizations: The Champlain Mental Health & Addictions Network; Kids Come First; The Community Development Framework Coalition; The Ottawa Black Mental Health Coalition; and the Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership.

A secretariat will also be formed with representation from the city, OPS and Ottawa Public health to support the guiding council.

The consultation itself will consist of online surveys and direct interviews with community members, academics and mental health experts.

Deputy Chief Steve Bell said during the presentation that the creation of the council is meant to ensure that police themselves will not be leading the consultation process, acknowledging the calls for cops to take a back seat in mental health response.

“It needs to be community-led, it needs to be community-driven,” he said.

But numerous delegations who spoke at Monday’s OPSB called for a full removal of police from any mental health response system, citing the harm police can cause to those experiencing such crises.

Speaker Julia Falco said the proposed OPS mental health changes amount to a “PR strategy,” and echoed the calls from other delegates to give more control over the strategy to the guiding council itself.

“We are demanding no, as in zero, police involvement,” Falco said. “If you want this to be community-led, the power and decision-making needs to be with the community.”

Chief Peter Sloly pushed back against calls to remove police entirely from the equation. He said he hasn’t heard of any model across the world where police have no role in the mental health response system, even if they are not the lead.

He reiterated his commitment to giving police a decreased role in responding to such concerns, but maintained police will be “integrated” in whatever model is adopted.

Sloly also pushed back on complaints the consultation direction was too vague, stating that the guiding council and its approach should not be dictated by the council itself — any undue influence by the police or its board would fail to be a truly community-led project, he said.

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Sahada Alolo, co-chair of the OPS’s Community Equity Council, said the civilian body was pleased that some of the “key points” it has made to police are present in the strategy document.

While Alolo acknowledged previous delegates’ concerns and that the CEC might not have the full support of the community because of how it works with the police, she said she was pleased to see themes of community-led responses reflected in the consultation plan.

She noted that a robust mental health response strategy does not start or end with the moment of police invention, but is grounded by a city with proper social support in place for all members of the community.

“We see the OPS being a very small part of this process but a critical part because they will be the one the service is reflected back to when we collectively fail,” Alolo said.

The ultimate strategy needs to be capable of different responses based on contexts such as the faith and racial background of the person in crisis, she added.

The strategy is “incomplete” and needs more work, but Alolo said she was pleased to see the start of the process.

The board ultimately passed staff’s directions for the consultation, which is expected to begin in the spring.

Other aspects of the meeting showed the extent of police distrust that still remains in the community.
Many delegates took issue with the board’s in-camera discussion of a recent incident at the St. Laurent Shopping Centre.

On Dec. 27, 2020, armed OPS officers reportedly swarmed a group of young Black men in the mall parking lot. Now dubbed the Valued Seven, the group was there to discuss filming a music video but were instead detained by police at gunpoint, according to the men.

The Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition and allied groups have since issued a series of demands, including the expunging of the group’s information from any police record and the release of the 911 call that summoned an armed police response.

While Deans said the OPSB’s mandate makes it the wrong forum to file complaints about specific occurrences — she directed concerns to the provincial Office of the Independent Police Review Director — many delegates voiced their support for the Valued Seven and were frustrated by a perceived lack of transparency around the incident.

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