Grand chief ‘dismayed’ OPP officer remains on duty

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A distressed Indigenous woman died after being held in custody because police considered a shoplifting charge more important than getting her back to hospital, a lawyer for an Aboriginal advocacy firm charged Friday.

“That to me is incredibly infuriating,” Caitlyn Kasper of Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto said.

The fact an OPP officer remains on active duty while facing charges in the death shows the continued lack of understanding and respect police in Ontario show Indigenous peoples, she charged.

“The confidence the family and the public have in police is definitely eroded,” said Kasper. “It definitely sends the message police aren’t taking the matter seriously.”

Oneida First Nation member Debra Chrisjohn, 39, died Sept. 7, 2016 after she was arrested by London police, then handed over to Elgin OPP on an outstanding warrant.

The day before, London police had arrested Chrisjohn — her family says she was accused of breaking into cars.

Chrisjohn struggled with mental illness and addiction, and London police took her to hospital, said Kasper, who is representing the woman’s family.

But police left Chrisjohn at the hospital unattended and she left without being treated, her family says.

London police arrested Chrisjohn again the next day for causing a disturbance in traffic.

Instead of taking her to hospital again, police transferred her to Elgin OPP because she was wanted for shoplifting, Kasper said.

“We are talking about a shoplifting charge. Police are criminalizing mental health and substance abuse issues,” she said.

“There has to be better options in how police handle people in Indigenous communities, especially women,” Kasper added.

Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), announced Thursday that London police Const. Nicholas Doering and OPP Const. Mark McKillop are charged with criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessaries of life in Chrisjohn’s death.

Doering has been assigned to administrative duties. But McKillop remains on active duty, the OPP said.

The grand chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Nations, Joel Abram, called on the OPP to explain the decision to keep an officer charged with criminal negligence on active duty.

“Right now, they owe the family an explanation,” said Abram, a member of the Oneida Nation who knew Chrisjohn. “We are discouraged and dismayed by the fact the officer remains on duty.”

A civilian oversight agency with the power to lay criminal charges, the SIU has laid charges of criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessities of life only a handful of times since the watchdog was established in 1990.

Prior to Chrisjohn’s death, the SIU had charged just three police officers with failing to provide the necessities of life, while six officers were charged with criminal negligence causing death, according to statistics provided by an SIU spokesperson Friday.

Doering is the fourth London police office to be criminally charged in the past two months.

Police Chief John Pare appealed to the public for patience while the cases are dealt with in court.

“Members of the London police service are professionals that come to work each and every day to do the best job they can to make our community safe. They respond to calls for service with the goal of helping those involved — it is a difficult job.” Pare said in an email response to Free Press questions Friday.

“As with any person charged with a criminal offence, our officers deserve to be treated fairly and have the right to their day in court, where the justice system will have the opportunity to review and weigh all of the evidence in its entirety.”

It’s unclear the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, the provincial agency that investigates complaints against police, is probing the actions of the officers involved in the Chrisjohn’s death.

Spokesperson Camille Williams said she couldn’t divulge whether Doering or McKillop are the subjects of an investigation, citing the OIPRD’s policy of not publicizing conduct probes until they’re completed.

Those investigations, handled by the OIPRD or referred back to the police force involved, could result in a Police Services Act hearing.

“The hearing decision is made public and we post those on our website,” Williams said.

Justice Michael Tulloch took aim at the OIPRD in his recent report on police oversight in Ontario, saying many people don’t have faith in the agency or even know about the its existence.

Tulloch highlighted Indigenous people’s distrust of the OIPRD and their fear of police retribution for filing a complaint.

“This concern was particularly acute for First Nations communities served by the OPP. Members of these communities told me that if they raised their concerns about the OPP, then their communities may suffer,” Tulloch wrote in his 263-page report. 

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