TORONTO — Officers who were in the home of Regis Korchinksi-Paquet when she fell to her death from a Toronto balcony were cleared of wrongdoing by Ontario's police watchdog on Wednesday, bringing to a close what the woman's family called a flawed investigation.
The lengthy report from the Special Investigations Unit found Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death while trying to sidestep onto a neighbour's balcony on the evening of May 27, after she, her brother and her mother each called 911 over an argument that had turned physical.
SIU Director Joseph Martino said the officers tried to de-escalate the situation and "though their efforts were unsuccessful," none of them broke the law.
"As I am satisfied that the involved officers acted lawfully throughout their engagement with Ms. Korchinski-Paquet and her family, there are no grounds for proceeding with criminal charges in this case notwithstanding Ms. Korchinski-Paquet's tragic death," he wrote.
But Korchinski-Paquet's sister said Wednesday that their family is "disgusted" by the SIU's findings.
"We're not OK with the way the system works. We're not OK with it — nobody is," Renee Korchinski told a news conference outside the apartment building where her sister died.
"It seems like nobody's getting justice or what they deserve. What happened to my sister shouldn't have happened to her, but it did, so people need to be held accountable for their actions."
Korchinski-Paquet's death sparked protests in the city and calls to change the way police deal with people experiencing mental health crises.
Martino, in his report, noted that the 29-year-old died just days after George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, was killed when an officer pressed a knee against his neck for nearly nine minutes, at a time when there was increased scrutiny over the relationship between police and racialized people.
In Toronto, thousands of protesters took to the streets on May 30, three days after Korchinski-Paquet's death. Several smaller marches followed over the next few weeks.
The SIU report notes that Korchinski-Paquet's death sparked "important conversations" about the ways in which police interact with Black and Indigenous people, but says there was no evidence of police wrongdoing or "overt" racism in the incident itself.
Martino said race may have been a factor in the events leading up to the death of Korchinski-Paquet, who was both Indigenous and Black, but that examining systemic issues in policing is not his purview.
"The task before me was a narrow one — namely, to determine whether there were reasonable grounds, on the evidence collected by the SIU, to believe that any one or more of the officers who responded to Ms. Korchinski-Paquet's apartment committed a criminal offence in connection with her death," he wrote.
The Special Investigations Unit said six officers were in the home at the time, while her mother and brother were nearby.
The agency's report says Korchinski-Paquet's mother had called police to the home because the two siblings were fighting — "bottles and punches had been thrown" — and she wanted them removed from the apartment.
It says Korchinski-Paquet and her brother also called 911 during the argument, which began as a dispute over the volume of the TV after Korchinski-Paquet had had a seizure.
When the 911 operator asked about any mental health issues, the report says, the family indicated that Korchinski-Paquet had epilepsy and had had seizures earlier in the day.
It says that after police arrived, two officers blocked Korchinski-Paquet from getting to her mother and brother before allowing her back into the apartment so she could use the bathroom.
She then went out onto the 24th-floor balcony and prevented officers from joining her by holding her body against the door.
"Very quickly, Ms. Korchinski-Paquet scaled the balcony railing and the (subject officer) lost sight of her," the report reads.
She then tried to scale the balcony and cross onto the adjoining one, which is when she lost her balance and fell to her death, the report reads.
The agency said no officers were on the balcony with Korchinski-Paquet at the time.
Martino said the officers seemed to be confused about whether epilepsy was a mental health condition and if they should or could detain Korchinski-Paquet under the Mental Health Act.
"The limited layperson's research I have conducted of the matter suggests that epilepsy is a neurological disorder with manifestations that can be mental as well as physical," Martino wrote. "Be that as it may, I cannot fault the officers for failing to take Ms. Korchinski-Paquet into custody prior to her scaling the balcony railing. She had not given them any indication that she wished to harm herself and was professing to be the victim of an assault at the hands of her brother."
The decision comes after the arm's-length agency interviewed all six officers, along with 15 civilian witnesses.
The agency said investigators also received a written statement from Korchinski-Paquet's father, with whom she had been speaking on the phone moments before her death.
Lawyers for Korchinski-Paquet's family — including a former director of the SIU — vehemently disagreed with the agency's legal analysis at a news conference on Wednesday.
Howard Morton said police had a "duty of care" over Korchinski-Paquet, because in his estimation, she was being detained. He said officers should not have allowed her "anywhere near" the balcony.
But Toronto Police commended the SIU's findings, with interim Chief James Ramer saying his officers "acted professionally and followed their training to the best of their abilities."
"Although our officers were cleared — a finding that I fully stand behind — there is no win in this tragic situation for anyone," Ramer said. "A young woman lost her life. Her family lost their daughter, sister, cousin. The service again offers its deepest sympathies."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 26, 2020.
Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misidentified the director of the Special Investigations Unit.