Abdirahman Abdi: A Case of Police Impunity

Updated: Mar 29

Policy Brief by Peter Hamilton.

Introduction

The subject of this article is highly sensitive, as it addresses the use of force incident involving Constable Daniel Montsion during the arrest of Abdirahman Abdi in Ottawa, Ontario on July 24th, 2016. Although many may perceive this topic as being relevant to the greater discussions regarding systemic issues with law enforcement and the justice system, this policy brief serves only to analyze this case specifically.


Timeline of Events

On the morning of July 24th, 2016, Contst. Dave Weir from the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) responds to a call from a Bridgehead café in the Hintonburg neighbourhood of Ottawa concerning a confrontation where witnesses allege suspect Abdirahman Abdi was groping a female customer and causing a public disturbance [1]. Upon arrival, Const. Weir informs the dispatcher via radio that the suspect is being aggressive and displays possible mental health issues [2]. Minutes later, Const. Montsion responds over the radio that he is on route to the scene. Shortly after his arrival, a foot chase ensues to Abdi’s nearby apartment complex, where he is pepper sprayed, hit with a baton, kicked, punched, eventually put under control and handcuffed by both officers. The next day, Abdi is declared dead at the hospital due to brain hypoxia. Months later on March 6th, 2017, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) released the following charges against Const. Montsion: one count of manslaughter, one count of aggravated assault and one count of assault with a weapon [3]. Under the Criminal Code, manslaughter is defined as homicide that is committed without the intent of causing death [4].


Crown Charges, Defence, and Court Rulings

There were two main themes behind the charges laid by the Crown against Const. Montsion [5]. The first theme was that the arrest of Abdi was undertaken with an unjustifiable use of force. The Crown did not doubt that the suspect warranted arrest, but instead argued that the force used was not commensurate to the minimum force required to contain the public threat posed by Abdi. The second theme was that the plastic covered knuckles on the gloves worn by Const. Montsion equate to a weapon, as they compounded the effects of his strikes. The Crown prosecution argued that the strikes carried out by Const. Montsion broke Abdi’s nose and therefore contributed to his death.


Const. Montsion’s defence counsel countered these arguments by suggesting that the injuries could have been sustained during the takedown from Const. Weir. In a witness statement, Const. Weir also highlighted that he was fearful when dealing with Abdi during the incident, and this statement serves to amplify the necessity of their use of force. The defence also claimed that the CCTV footage that captures the incident after the foot chase ended was manipulated in an attempt to discredit the evidence depicting the arrest. They also presented other information to the Court in attempt to raise further doubt about Const. Montsion’s role in Abdi’s death, such as Abdi’s medical records, and although this may have certain bearing on the manslaughter charge, it should not apply to the two other charges.


On October 20th, 2020, Const. Montsion was found not guilty on all charges [5]. The presiding judge, Justice Robert Kelly justified his ruling according to the Crown’s inability to prove that Const. Montsion’s actions caused Abdi’s death beyond a reasonable doubt. He also stated that the force used by Const. Montsion did not substantially depart from what is authorized under Section 25 (1) of the Criminal Code, and this, Justice Kelly concludes, renders the question of whether or not the gloves constitute a weapon as irrelevant.


A Brief Analysis of the National Use of Force Framework

Police officers are trained according to a use of force model, often referred to as a continuum [6]. Although the framework of the continuum explicitly states that it does not serve to justify the actions of police officers, it is nationally used to help them adapt to the dynamic situations they face that may erupt in violence. More specifically, the continuum represents a non-linear process that depicts how police officers should perceive evolving situations and in-turn adjust their level of communication and posture according to whether or not a suspect’s behaviour is cooperative, resistant, assaultive or life threatening. The purpose of this framework is to help ensure the safety of the public as well as that of the police officers themselves. In substance, the continuum allows police to use an escalated amount of force in relation to that being used by an aggressor, while ensuring that their primary goals of life preservation and protection are achieved. This idea aligns with the mission statement of the OPS [7].


The use of force continuum can and should be applied to the case against Const. Montsion in order to solidify a framework when analyzing whether or not the level of force he used was justified. The initial call to the police alleging Abdi’s sexual assault and disruptive behaviour automatically warrants an investigation and probable arrest. Abdi’s fleeing the scene and resisting arrest further indicates that physical control will be necessary to subdue the suspect. However, once Abdi was chased down to the courtyard of the apartment complex, the situation changed. Although Abdi continues not to comply with the verbal instructions and physical actions of Const. Weir, he is now cornered by two police officers and the threat he poses to the public is low. But rather than attempting to de-escalate the situation, especially in consideration of Abdi’s suspected mental health issues, further force escalation ensues on behalf of Const. Montsion despite the suspect not attempting to strike or physically engage with the officers. Ultimately, it is clear from the CCTV footage that the force used was not the least amount necessary to subdue the suspect, and this is further reflected by the two strikes that were administered to Abdi’s head while he was on the ground and already under control.


Conclusion

Unfortunately, there will be times when police must escalate their use of force when dealing with disturbances that threaten public safety. Like all citizens, police officers have a right to due process and incidents that involve controversial uses of force must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis to ensure that they are not wrongfully convicted. However, there are two problems that arise with this case. First, despite the defence counsel's suggestion that the CCTV footage was doctored, it clearly portrays that Abdi could have been restrained without the volume of strikes inflicted by Const. Montsion. Second, although there will be times when tense situations naturally create some margin of error in the application of force, this ambiguity should not be used as a baseline to ensure police impunity. As the primary responsibility of the national police services is to preserve and protect life, when their officers engage in unnecessary assault, like all other citizens, they should be held accountable.

  1. Aedan Helmer, “Timeline: Everything we know in the Abdirahman Abdi case,” Ottawa Citizen, 6 March 2017, Retrieved from: https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/timeline-everything-we-know-in-the-abdirahman-abdi case

  2. Aedan Helmer, “Montsion verdict: Judge considered first-responding officer’s radio dispatches from foot chase,” Ottawa Citizen, 22 October 2020, Retrieved from: https://ottawacitizen.com/news/montsion-verdict-judge-considered-first-responding-officers-radio -dispatches-from-foot-chase

  3. “SIU Lays Charges against Officer in Relation to Death of Abdirahaman Abdi,” Special Investigations Unit, 6 March 2017, Retrieved from: https://www.siu.on.ca/en/news_template.php?nrid=2979

  4. Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, s 232(1).

  5. Craig Lord, “Ottawa Const. Montsion not guilty on all charges in death of Abdirahaman Abdi, judge finds,” Global News 20 October 2020, Retrieved from: https://globalnews.ca/news/7407392/verdict-ottawa-police-constable-daniel-montsion-trial/

  6. “National Use of Force Framework,” The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, November 2000, Retrieved from: https://cacp.ca/policiesguidelines.html?asst_id=199

  7. “About Us,” Ottawa Police Service, 2020, Retrieved from: https://www.ottawapolice.ca/en/about-us.aspx?_mid_=16623#Our-Mission-Vision-and-Values