The Thunder Bay, Ont., police officer tasked with leading the flawed investigation into an Ojibway man's 2015 death has been found guilty of disciplinary charges, while a second officer has been cleared.
Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison and Sgt. Shawn Whipple of the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) had each been charged with one count of neglect of duty and one count of discreditable conduct under Ontario's Police Services Act relating to the Stacy DeBungee death investigation.
In a decision Tuesday from Greg Walton, an officer who presided over the misconduct hearing, which began in May and was held over three weeks, Harrison was found guilty of both counts while Whipple was found not guilty.
Harrison was a detective at the time of the investigation but has since been promoted to staff sergeant. At the start of the hearing, he pleaded guilty to the neglect of duty charge.
"My family and I are pleased that there is finally some accountability for the way Stacy's investigation was handled," his brother, Brad DeBungee, said in a statement issued by lawyers representing him and Rainy River First Nations, the family's community.
"We have had to fight the Thunder Bay Police Service every step of the way to ensure accountability for Stacy. He deserved to have a proper death investigation. We deserved to know what happened to our brother."
The body of DeBungee, 41, was found in the McIntyre River on the morning of Oct. 19, 2015.
Within three hours of the discovery of DeBungee's body, police had issued a news release that said the initial investigation did not indicate the case was a suspicious death, even though the body had yet to be positively identified and an autopsy had not yet been conducted.
A second news release was issued the next day, deeming the death to be "non-criminal."
The family hired a private investigator, who found DeBungee's debit card was used after his death and interviewed witnesses who were not part of the police investigation. Officers refused to meet with the investigator.
A complaint was filed to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), which reviewed the initial Thunder Bay police investigation and released a report in 2018 outlining its deficiencies.
During the hearing, former deputy police chief Andy Hay testified the investigators should have treated the case as a possible homicide early in the investigation.
In his decision, Walton wrote he could not understand how or why Harrison concluded as quickly as he did that alcohol contributed to the death, other than a reliance on conscious or unconscious bias linked to DeBungee's Indigenous status that he must have been intoxicated and rolled into the waterway.
Walton, a retired Ontario Provincial Police superintendent, also raised concern about that conclusion not being based on evidence and that Harrison did not take further investigative steps to determine how DeBungee ended up in the river.
"This is beyond worrisome; it is incomprehensible that an experienced investigator was satisfied with the mere assumption that a sudden death was accidental when there was absolutely no evidence to indicate how [Stacy] DeBungee actually came to be in the river," the decision reads.
Walton also said that had Harrison treated the case as an unknown or undetermined manner of death, the investigation would have been more fulsome.
"Instead, the investigation conducted into the sudden death of [Stacy] DeBungee was far less than the bare minimum expected by any investigative standard."
The hearing officer ultimately concluded there was insufficient evidence to find Whipple guilty of discreditable conduct due to his limited role in the investigation.
A third Thunder Bay police officer had been charged with neglect of duty, but that proceeding was terminated upon the officer's retirement in April.
Decision comes nearly 7 years after death
A TBPS spokesperson issued a media release Tuesday evening that included a link to the decision, and said the disposition hearing has been scheduled for September, but no further comment would be made.
The hearings took in place in May and June, nearly seven years after DeBungee's death, and came after years of legal wrangling. Under the Police Services Act, a notice of hearing must be filed within six months of the initial complaint, but in this case, that didn't happen until more than two years later, after the OIPRD report was completed in 2018.
For proceedings to move forward, the Thunder Bay Police Services Board had to apply for an extension hearing. The case was bogged down in a multi-year legal dispute, which involved the CBC, over whether that hearing would be open to the public.
The case eventually made its way before the Ontario Court of Appeal, which led to an adjudicator ruling that the hearing not be closed to the public.
The extension hearing was finally held in February 2021, and it was determined the three officers would face the disciplinary hearings.