A University of Toronto student and his mother are suing three Toronto police officers alongside the Toronto Police Services Board and seeking damages of just under $3 million, alleging that Hasani O'Gilvie was unlawfully and violently detained back in the summer of 2021.
Police disciplinary documents refer to the incident as a case of "mistaken identity" — but a lawyer representing the family says it's instead a case of someone being assaulted for "walking while Black," after O'Gilvie was allegedly forced to the ground with a knee on his neck and repeatedly shocked with a Taser.
"It's difficult to imagine how haunting it must be to find yourself face down on the ground, piled on by three officers, while complying and pleading you've done nothing wrong, as they hold you down by your neck and stun you with a Taser, repeatedly," lawyer David Shellnutt said during a news conference Monday.
None of the allegations in the lawsuit have been proven in court, and a statement of defence has not yet been issued. Toronto police would not comment as the matter is currently before the courts and the police disciplinary tribunal.
News of the incident was first reported by The Toronto Star.
A statement of claim for the lawsuit says it happened on the afternoon of Aug. 12, 2021. At the time, O'Gilvie was 27 years old, and was heading to the University of Toronto as he was taking courses through the summer.
That day, O'Gilvie went to a plaza at 1603 Wilson Ave. in North York, before heading to a nearby bus stop. According to the statement of claim, O'Gilvie noticed a Toronto police officer in a car — one of the defendants, Sgt. Rachel Saliba — following him.
As he reached a No Frills grocery store in the area, O'Gilvie started to "fear for his safety" and went down a walkway between the store and another building in the plaza, according to court documents.
Taser repeatedly used, lawsuit says
Saliba then drove her cruiser down the walkway and started to question O'Gilvie. He gave her his name but she "did not believe him," the statement of claim reads, adding that Saliba "escalated the situation" by pointing her Taser at him.
Seconds later, according to the lawsuit, Toronto police Const. Jilliane Baquiran arrived and both officers physically detained O'Gilvie under threat of being Tasered.
"The Defendant Officers Saliba and Baquiran then attempted to take Mr. Ogilvie to the ground and arrest him, all the while he assured them that he had not done anything and put his hands up and in front of him to show he was complying," the statement of claim says.
The situation escalated and became more violent, the lawsuit alleges, and Const. Seth Rietkoetter arrived on the scene and tackled O'Gilvie. The three officers then "piled on," according to the lawsuit, and Rietkoetter "placed his knee and leg" on O'Gilvie's neck.
The statement of claim says that despite O'Gilvie "complying and having his hands behind his back when asked," Riekoetter began Tasering him "repeatedly while he was subdued, not resisting, on the ground, and restraints being applied."
The lawsuit alleges Riekoetter's knee remained on O'Gilvie's neck "as he continued to Taser him."
Once he was restrained, the officers then "unlawfully searched" O'Gilvie's bag, where they found his ID, according to the lawsuit. The officers later apologized and released him, the court documents say.
O'Gilvie continues to suffer anxiety, depression and physical and psychological injuries due to what happened, the statement of claim reads.
Police tribunal calls force 'excessive,' 'unnecessary'
O'Gilvie did not appear at Monday's news conference as he remains "deeply traumatized by the events," his lawyer said — but his mother described the profound impact on her son.
"My son experienced severe emotional and physical trauma, and as a consequence had to curtail his studies," said Christine O'Gilvie, who has been working as a teacher in Toronto for 16 years. "Every day is a healing for him."
Police disciplinary tribunal documents concerning the three officers named in the lawsuit allege O'Gilvie's detention was carried out in "an unreasonable manner and was unlawful" — and say even after his identity was confirmed, O'Gilvie continued to be detained without justification.
The police tribunal documents state Rietkoetter shocked O'Gilvie with his Taser five times while it was in "drive stun mode," even though he was not resisting and his hands were behind his back.
The documents also state that Rietkoetter placed a knee across O'Gilvie's neck, which "served no legitimate purpose" and was "excessive and unnecessary."
In response to the allegations, Toronto Police Association president Jon Reid said in a statement the association is ensuring the officers involved are treated fairly throughout the disciplinary process.
"Policing is a very difficult job and every day across this city our members put on their uniforms, put their lives at risk, and do their jobs in good faith for the safety of our community," Reid said.
"In many cases, enforcement actions are met with resistance; not everyone wants to be arrested. Our members are subject to more levels of oversight than any other profession."
Body camera footage not made public
Shellnutt told reporters at Monday's news conference that the whole incident was captured by police body cameras and he has seen the video as part of the disclosure process. He and the family have sought to have it released through a freedom of information request so that it can be shown to the public — but that request is being "buried" by Toronto police, he believes, for the "huge public outcry it will elicit."
A Toronto police spokesperson, meanwhile, told CBC News it is not releasing the video as it is "excluded" from the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act because it "relates to an employment proceeding currently before the TPS Disciplinary Tribunal."
The lawsuit comes less than a year after then-interim Toronto police chief James Ramer apologized following the release of a police report showing Black, Indigenous and other diverse groups are disproportionately affected by use of force and strip searches by officers.
That apology was laudable, Shellnutt said, "but it means nothing if you stare back at the people affected by it and do nothing."
O'Gilvie's mother said in 17 months, her family has seen no justice for what happened to her son.
"This cycle of brutality being perpetrated on our young Black males needs to stop," she said, adding that police officers must confront their biases.
"You are here to serve and protect all citizens — emphasis on 'all.' Approach our young men of colour with an open mind. And even more importantly, resolve that you treat them with dignity."
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.