‘Finally’ says DeBungee family legal counsel on PSA verdict

Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison was found guilty of discreditable conduct and neglect of duty for mishandling of the 2015 sudden death investigation of Stacey DeBungee but the president of the Thunder Bay Police Association maintains he has no racial bias

THUNDER BAY – Legal counsel on behalf of Stacey DeBungee’s family say they are pleased Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison is being held accountable for mishandling the 2015 investigation into Stacey’s death, but the president of the Thunder Bay Police Association maintains that Harrison has no racial bias.

“Finally, there is some accountability,” said Asha James, legal counsel on behalf of the two public complainants in the Police Service Act hearing including the DeBungee family.

“It’s been a long time. It’s been seven years since Stacy’s death. The family is pleased about the decision that was reached. It’s somewhat historic. It’s not every day you get a decision that says a police officer was racist during an investigation and it clouded the investigation.”

Harrison was found guilty of discreditable conduct and neglect of duty under the Police Services Act following several weeks of hearings that opened on May 30, 2022 before adjudicator Greg Walton.

Walton released his decision late Tuesday afternoon, stating: “Staff Sgt. Harrison failed to treat or protect the deceased and his or her family equally and without discrimination because the deceased was Indigenous.”

Harrison pleaded guilty to the charge of neglect of duty at the start of the hearing for failing to meet with a private investigator hired by the DeBungee family to look into the circumstances surrounding Stacey’s death in 2015.

Stacey DeBungee’s body was found in the McIntyre River on Oct. 19, 2015 and a media release was issued by the Thunder Bay Police Service only hours later stating the death was non-criminal.

Det. Shawn Whipple was also facing charges of neglect of duty and discreditable conduct, but was found not guilty. Walton said there was no evidence to convict Whipple because of his limited role in the investigation.

“I think the hearing officer had to make that decision based on the evidence before him at the tribunal. The client understands that,” James said of Whipple’s acquittal.

James added that with respect to Harrison, there was an abundance of evidence showing that he made up his mind regarding what happened to Stacey DeBungee at the time he was pulled from the river and as a result, failed to take any appropriate investigative steps.

“I think it’s an important ruling given where things are in Thunder Bay with the Thunder Bay Police Service and the Indigenous community,” she said. “It’s just further credence and proof of what the Indigenous community has been saying for years with their interactions with the Thunder Bay Police Service.”

“It is not an isolated incident, it is not a one off, it is truly emblematic of a systemic issue in the Thunder Bay Police Service.”

Colin Woods, president of the Thunder Bay Police Association, said he was surprised by Walton’s ruling, saying he knows Harrison quite well as the staff sergeant in the patrol unit where he currently works.

“I can say 100 per cent that he is not a racist person,” Woods said. “I’ve never seen him to show that or display that or treat anyone differently because of who they are and their background.”

Woods added these kinds of decisions can impact the entire membership and the Police Association will continue to support Harrison and all members.

“This does have an effect on everybody in the membership and we will be there to make sure everyone gets the support they need,” he said.

In his ruling, Walton said the case is an example of how unconscious bias can influence investigations conducted by the Thunder Bay Police Service.

But Woods questioned Walton’s ruling based on the idea of ​​unconscious bias.

“You got to think about it really hard. Basically, he determined Shawn was guilty, it wasn’t for overtly doing anything, it was something he didn’t even recognize he was doing and that is what Mr. Walton was saying,” Woods said. “I don’t know if that constitutes discreditable conduct in my view. If you don’t know you are doing something, how are you guilty of it?”

Harrison remains on active duty with the Thunder Bay Police Service. A hearing will be held in September to determine what disciplinary actions will be taken.

Under the Police Services Act, there is a wide range of disciplinary actions, from losing banked days to termination.

James said she and her team will be reviewing Walton’s decision to determine what they feel is an appropriate punishment.

“We do not see this as a case that should be on the lower end of the spectrum in terms of discipline,” she said. “This conduct is something that cannot be acceptable, and a real strong message has to be sent in that regard to ensure other officers understand this will not be taken lightly.”

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