Community and Police Action Committee faces barrage of criticism over wristbands

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Community and Police Action Committee faces barrage of criticism over wristbands

At a meeting of a committee that works to improve relations between diverse communities and Ottawa police, speaker after speaker ripped into the force over a controversial wristband campaign supporting an officer charged with manslaughter.

"How do you expect your community to trust you?" asked Dahabo Ahmed Omer, a member of the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, addressing herself directly to Deputy Chief Steve Bell.

She also questioned the value of the Community and Police Action Committee, or COMPAC.

"How many people have gone out to communities and asked them and said, 'How do you feel? What do you want us to do?' The media is doing that for you…. Why do you exist?"

'It's an insult, it's an affront'

César Ndéma-Moussa, a community representative on COMPAC, didn't hold back.

"How come the police as an institution will tolerate such a thing as this wristband? It's an insult, it's an affront," he said.

"How would police feel if members of the community were wearing wristbands in support of a man charged with [the] manslaughter of a police officer?"

Abdrirahman Abdi lost vital signs during a confrontation with police outside his home in the Hintonburg neighbourhood in July last year. Ontario's Special Investigations Unit later charged Const. Daniel Montsion with manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon.

After the charges were laid, some members of the Ottawa police began selling wristbands imprinted with the words "united we stand, divided we fall," as well as Montsion's badge number.

Once CBC News brought the wristbands to light, Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau urged officers not to wear them while in uniform, saying "we should all be concerned about the long-term impact on public trust this could create."

Police frustrated by gag order, inspector says

Bell opened the COMPAC meeting Thursday by saying that officers told him their intent wasn't to alienate the public.

Carol Campbell, a COMPAC member representing the Jamaican community, asked what the real intent was.

"What's been described to me as the intent is the support of a person, a member, of a colleague who is going through a difficult court process," Bell said, adding that the wristband campaign was not sanctioned or supported by police administration.

Insp. John Medeiros added that some of officers he's spoken to are not feeling supported by the community or senior Ottawa police officers. He suggested the wristbands are in response to frustration felt by police who are "under a gag order" about the SIU investigation and Montsion's criminal case.

"Meanwhile, everyone else has the liberty to engage in conversation that involves real people in these uniforms," he said.

'We made a mistake here'

Staff Sgt. Dave Zackrias, who leads the Ottawa police diversity and race relations unit and manages COMPAC, acknowledged the wristbands have created divisions.

"My hope is we look back in the future and learn from some of the mistakes we've done here. We are not perfect. We are all human beings. We made a mistake here," he said.

The explanations and comments from police didn't dampen the barrage of criticism.

Erin Barkel, a public servant who became sensitized to the treatment of the mentally ill when she worked in a hospital, said Abdi needed treatment.

"There is a man who is dead now who really should have just received some mental health treatment, and that is a failing not just on behalf of the Ottawa Police Service, it's a failing on behalf of our health-care system and the broader community, and it's really unfortunate," she said.

Barkel then put senior police officers on the spot over the wristband campaign.

"I understand you didn't condone what happened, but what I've heard is you regret that people were offended. What I haven't heard is that we are sorry…. I think it would go a long way for people who are part of those visible minority communities to hear that someone is sorry for what happened," Barkel said.

After the meeting wrapped up, Bell spoke privately to Dahabo Ahmed Omer, but she said he did not apologize.

Bell declined to comment.