Officer conduct ‘reasonable’ in arrest of Somali-Canadian man in Waterloo region: Report

Two external investigations ordered by the Waterloo Regional Police Service have found officers acted appropriately during the arrest of a Somali-Canadian man last summer. Defense lawyer Hal Mattson thinks police should have acted differently given the man's language and mental health issues. ( ACB Network of Waterloo Region/Twitter)

Two external investigations into the high-profile arrest of a Somali-Canadian man in Waterloo region last summer have concluded that the officers involved acted appropriately, according to a report going before the police services board this week.

“In consideration of the totality of the circumstances, both [investigations] found the involved officers’ conduct on July 5, 2020 to be reasonable, appropriate and lawful,” the report said.

The arrest captured significant local attention after a video of the arrest was posted online.

The man was first stopped and ticketed for driving at night without headlights on. The situation escalated after the man followed the officers to a nearby community centre parking lot, where officers thought they heard him fire a gun, the report said.

Believing the man was armed, officers called for backup.

The man was arrested at a nearby gas station. While searching the man for a gun, officers struck the man and used a taser to subdue him. Police ultimately did not find a weapon, the report said. It was thought the sound of a gun was from a firework.

‘Initial contact’ was problem, says lawyer

Kitchener-based defence lawyer Hal Mattson thinks the situation could have been avoided if the first officers on the scene had approached the man differently.

“It was the initial contact he had with the police that was the whole problem,” said Mattson, who’s known the Somali-Canadian man for years and has represented him in other cases.

“If they’d just talked to him nicely … nothing would’ve happened.”

Mattson said his former client likely didn’t understand the situation happening around him. Mattson said the man doesn’t speak fluent English and has significant mental health issues — factors a Crown attorney also cited in a decision to withdraw the charge against him earlier this year.

“Hindsight, as they say, is often 20/20, but it appears some of the driver’s behaviour was the result of mental health issues. It is clear that many of the dynamics of his arrest were based on the erroneous belief that he had shot at the police and may be in possession of a gun,” the Crown wrote in a statement included in the police services board report.

“In the end, his vehicle was damaged and the use of force at arrest impacted both him and members of his community who were present or viewed it in the media.”

The man was represented in this case by another defence lawyer, who was in court Monday and did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

‘Aggressive’ behaviour

In the wake of the arrest, Waterloo regional police called for two external investigations into the situation. The first was done by a former Calgary police inspector named Chris Butler.

According to Butler’s report, the man acted aggressively toward police when he pulled up next to the officers in the community centre parking lot, and later, when he pursued a second police cruiser down the road.

“This behaviour is extremely rare and is indicative of someone who is behaving very aggressively and seeking a confrontation with police,” Butler wrote in the report.

While it later turned out the man was not armed, it was reasonable that the officers’ observations of the flash and sound of the firework led them to think a gun may have been present, the report said.

When police arrested the man, they used “strikes and stun techniques” to try and free his hands and handcuff him, Butler’s report said.

According to Butler, these actions were appropriate given the specifics of the case.

The second investigation, conducted by Peel Regional Police, came to a similar conclusion. The report noted that police believed there was a firearm involved and were concerned about bystanders becoming a “safety concern should the crowd become unruly and descend on them.”

“The use of physical constraint by placing the driver on the ground was required to ensure safety and prevent injury,” the Peel Regional Police report said. “Given the driver’s behaviour, the search was carried out in a manner that was reasonable in light of the circumstances.”

Both reports are available in full detail on the police services board website. A spokesperson for the police service said Chief Bryan Larkin would provide further comment on Wednesday.

‘They start from wrong assumptions’

Mattson sees the situation differently. At the time of the arrest, Mattson said the man had recently gotten his driver’s licence after years of trying, and didn’t understand why police had stopped him.

“He thought, ‘Why are you bothering me? I just got my licence,’ but he couldn’t articulate that,” Mattson said.

“That’s why he threw the tickets away and that’s why he followed the police to ask them, ‘Why did you give me these tickets?'”

Mattson said officers should have considered that the man wasn’t trying to be combative, but instead, was simply confused.

“They start from the wrong assumptions,” said Mattson.

‘People helping people’

Wednesday’s police services board report includes six pages of “commitments and lessons learned” by police in the wake of the arrest. Among other things, the service said it plans to review its internal training curriculum with a focus on how police respond to situations involving mental illness. 

As for Mattson, he thinks the first step for regional police is to take the service’s motto — “People Helping People” — to heart.

“If you start from the premise of ‘People Helping People,’ like it says on their car, then you go in a particular direction,” said Mattson.

“If you start from, ‘We have to make every person we stop be compliant with us,’ things go in a different direction.”