'Take a step back': Wristbands supporting charged officer shouldn't be worn on duty, leaders say

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'Take a step back': Wristbands supporting charged officer shouldn't be worn on duty, leaders say

Ottawa's police chief and the head of the Ottawa Police Services Board are urging caution about wristbands being worn by police in support of an officer charged with manslaughter in the 2016 death of Abdirahman Abdi.

Ottawa Police Service members and their supporters have purchased about 1,200 wristbands showing solidarity with Const. Daniel Montsion.

The black and blue silicone wristbands bear the words "United We Stand" on the outside and "Divided We Fall" on the inside, along with Montsion's badge number — 1998.

The wristbands were ordered by officers and have been sold for $2 each. They were advertised on a Facebook site, accessible only to members, under the heading: "In support of Cst Dan Montsion." 

'A great deal of negative commentary'

In an email to staff sent Wednesday after CBC News brought the wristbands to light, Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau wrote that "community perceptions" must be taken into account.

"We are all aware of wristbands that are being sold to show support for Montsion as he goes through the court process. I understand that sentiment. As we would for any member going through this type of process, the executive, the chain of command and his association have already put supports in place. Those supports will remain in place," the statement from Bordeleau reads.

"We must take into account the community perceptions of actions like these wristbands. There has already been a great deal of negative commentary and we should all be concerned about the long-term impact on public trust this could create. I am also concerned about how it may impact members during the course of their duties.

"I want to remind you that they are not part of the Ottawa Police Service uniform and should not be worn during working hours."

Wristbands 'have unintended consequences and are divisive'

Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, said he received numerous calls, emails and messages on social media from residents concerned about the wristbands.

"This is not the way we want to police our city or our community," said El-Chantiry. "Any clothing, any messaging to divide our community we should stay away from." 

In a statement issued Wednesday, El-Chantiry urged officers to take a step back and "reflect on the bigger picture."

"This is a difficult time for the community and the police service. The board understands the police membership wanting to show support for one another," El-Chantiry's statement reads.

"However the wristbands, even if well-meaning, have unintended consequences and are divisive. We need to take a step back and reflect on the bigger picture in this case. As a community, we need to move away from an 'us' versus 'them' mentality and remind ourselves of one of Sir Robert Peel's most important principles of law enforcement, 'The police are the public and the public are the police.'

"The police service has done, and continues to do, a lot of great work to build relationships and trust with the community. However, those relationships and that trust is very fragile. The board feels the wristbands may undermine all of the great efforts of the police service. In addition, we support the chief's directive that wristbands do not form part of the uniform, and therefore, are not to be worn while on duty."

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said he contacted El-Chantiry and the city's police chief when he first heard about the campaign. "When an officer is on duty, in uniform, they should not be wearing any kind of additional apparatus whether it's a bracelet, button or ribbon. That would be entirely inappropriate," he said.

"I'm pleased that the chief took action immediately to let officers know that wearing a bracelet and giving some kind of statement, political or otherwise, is not appropriate and will not be tolerated."

Watson said officers do have the right to wear what they'd like off duty, but wearing these types of bracelets is not helpful.

"There's no question, the death of Mr. Abdi has opened a number of wounds in the community. I don't believe having this kind of bracelet campaign is helpful to trying to heal the divisions within the community."

'Blatant disregard for human life'

The Justice for Abdirahman Coalition released a statement on Wednesday calling the solidarity campaign a "disappointment."

"Today marks the first step towards justice for Abdirahman after the community and family waited patiently for the SIU to complete its investigation, and the launch of a bracelet campaign is a direct insult to those of us who stand against police brutality," reads the statement.

"Charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon are serious allegations and nothing to be celebrated or supported."

Nimao Ali, who is a member of the coalition, witnessed the violent altercation between Abdi and Montsion in July 2016.

"It's very disrespectful to the family who lost a young man [at] the hands of a police officer and also very disrespectful to the Ottawa community who is still grieving," she said.

"Every time we move forward … something like this happens and it sets the clock back."

'Expressing their support'

Ottawa Police Association president Matt Skof said the wristbands represent solidarity with a fellow officer going through a difficult time, and nothing more.

"This is just about expressing their support for a colleague. It's a very difficult environment that we're in, in policing," he said.

"This has nothing to do with the relations we have with the community. This has nothing to do with race. This is not a public campaign."

Noting that Montsion's legal costs are already covered by the police association, the Facebook post about the bracelets states all profits will go to a police benevolent fund.

The show of support is raising concerns both inside and outside the force, however.

A police officer who spoke to the CBC on the condition of anonymity said he won't wear the bracelet, and said some other officers won't, either.

"I think it hurts the integrity of the service," the officer said. "It's taking sides." 

Ketcia Peters, co-chair of Ottawa's Community and Police Action Committee (COMPAC), said she met Tuesday with members of the police service to express her concern over the bracelets.

"Think of how the Abdi family will feel, knowing this. What kind of message does it send?" Peters asked.

Peters said she can understand the desire of some officers to show solidarity, but she fears the community — particularly Ottawa's black community — will be deeply offended by the message the bracelets are sending while the death of Abdi, a Somali-Canadian, is under investigation.

The Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, which has been calling for changes to the law enforcement system after Abdi's death, sent a statement Wednesday expressing "outrage and disappointment" about the campaign.

"The launch of a bracelet campaign is a direct insult to those of us who stand against police brutality," the campaign said.

Earlier this month, Ontario's police watchdog charged Montsion with manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon in Abdi's death.

Abdi, 37, lost vital signs during a confrontation with Montsion and Const. Dave Weir on Sunday, July 24, 2016. He was pronounced dead in hospital the following afternoon.

Montsion had a court appearance in Ottawa Wednesday and his case was remanded until May. The 36-year-old had been on desk duty throughout the investigation and is now suspended with pay.