Members of LGBTQ community demand answers after Black trans woman dies in police custody

·6 min read

Members of Toronto's LGBTQ community are demanding answers after a 30-year-old Black transgender woman died last week after being taken into custody under Ontario's Mental Health Act, and was misgendered by the province's police watchdog in a news release.

The call for answers comes against a backdrop of mounting criticism of police handling of incidents involving people in crisis, with a number of cases sparking widespread attention over the past year, including that of Regis Korchinski-Paquet who fell to her death from a Toronto highrise in May, D'Andre Campbell, who was shot dead by a Peel police officer in April, and Ejaz Choudhry, who was also fatally shot by a Peel police officer in June.

On Oct. 26, Ontario's Special Investigations Unit (SIU) launched an investigation into what it said was the death of a 30-year-old man in Toronto.

According to the agency, which looks into any death, serious injury or allegation of sexual assault where police were present, preliminary information suggested Toronto police arrived at an apartment on Bellamy Road in Scarborough after a 911 call was made around 7 a.m.

"When officers arrived at an 8th floor apartment unit, they observed that a man had barricaded himself inside the unit," the SIU said in a news release. "However, the officers were able to eventually make their way inside."

The release goes on to say the "man," whose name was not released, was apprehended under Mental Health Act and taken to hospital, before "he" went into medical distress and was pronounced dead at 10:15 a.m. A post-mortem exam was completed on Oct. 28.

Officers involved have not responded to SIU's interview request

On Wednesday, after advocates and two city councillors voiced their concern over the case using the hashtag #TPSWhatHappened, the watchdog agency issued a new release saying investigators had since contacted the deceased's family and could now confirm she was in fact a trans woman.

Although it was contacted by The 519 last week, the agency said, "In an abundance of caution, the SIU made attempts to confirm this information with the deceased's next-of-kin."

That's despite Toronto police confirming the individual's identity to The 519 directly, its legal director told CBC News on Tuesday.

The SIU has designated two subject officers in the investigation but they have have so far not responded to the SIU's request for interviews. According to Ontario's Police Services Act, subject officers cannot be legally compelled to participate in an interview with the SIU, nor must they submit their notes to the agency.

One officer deemed a witness officer has so far been interviewed.

"The SIU appreciates the public interest in this case and is doing what it can to get answers to the public as quickly as possible while ensuring that the integrity of the investigation is not compromised. We ask for the public's continued patience," the agency said Wednesday.

Family, friends, community 'owed answers'

In a statement Tuesday, The 519, an well-known Toronto LGBTQ advocacy organization, said the deceased "much loved" Black trans woman and demanded more details about what happened.

"Among the many questions for public officials, why has the SIU published a news release that misgenders the woman who died after being informed of this error? We refuse to wait any longer for information and answers from the [Toronto Police Service] and the SIU that account for this loss of life," the statement said.

"Those closest to this tragic loss, family and friends, are owed answers. Those in our communities are owed answers. More information is needed — and it is needed now."

The organization added it would not be publishing the woman's name at this time out of respect for family and friends who may not know the details of her death.

"To all of you who are grieving, we extend deep and heartfelt condolences. We share your grief," the statement said.

Steps taken to connect family to support services: police

Toronto police told CBC News officers were called to the area last week Monday for a report of a break and enter.

When officers arrived however, they found there had been no break-in. Rather, the release said, "the person was in crisis" and was taken to hospital. Life-saving measures were attempted but the individual died in hospital, police said in a news release.

In a written statement to CBC News, Toronto police spokesperson Meaghan Gray said, "This information was shared proactively with The 519 and steps were taken by 43 Division to connect the family with the support services offered by The 519."

"We know the public may still have questions about how this incident unfolded and, given the SIU investigation prohibits us from providing any further detail, we hope those answers will come as soon as possible."

The 519 told CBC News it "received confirmation from the TPS directly that the deceased was, in fact, a trans woman." It also noted the Toronto police release used gender-neutral language — something it says the SIU could and should have done too.

The 519's director of legal services Justin Khan said the agency did contact the SIU about the misgendering in its release, "however they stated that they have not made contact with the family so they are unable to amend the statement."

Special Investigations Unit spokesperson Monica Hudon told CBC News on Tuesday the agency was contacted by The 519 last week about the deceased's identity and that its investigation was ongoing.

"However, I'm not able to say anything further with respect to the individual's identity until we have had a chance to talk to next-of-kin," Hudon said at the time, adding numerous efforts, including phone calls and a letter, had at that point been unsuccessful.

For Khan, that's no excuse for misgendering the deceased.

"There's no reason why the SIU couldn't have used a gender-neutral news release if they weren't able to verify that information," Khan said.

"This is an individual who's passed away," he added. "When we talk about misgendering ... we're advocating for this individual and for their family that they be remembered and recognized as the person that they were."

On Wednesday, two city councillors added their voices to the demands.

"Toronto deserves answers," tweeted Coun. Mike Layton. "We need to move faster to defund the police and develop community-based emergency response to protect people facing mental health crisis."

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam also tweeted, saying while the SIU continues its investigation, "it's still important for her given and [chosen] families to know from the #TPSWhatHappened as soon as possible."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.