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Canadian police under scrutiny after black man dies after an altercation with officers

Around 9:30 a.m. Monday, police in Ottawa were called to a coffee shop in the Canadian capital city's downtown. Patrons said a man was there, and that he was groping people.

When two responding officers arrived, they encountered Abdirahman Abdi, 37, a mentally ill man who lived nearby.

"Multiple callers called police reporting multiple assaults," Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau told reporters in statements posted on the department's website. "The situation was ongoing as officers arrived on scene. Officers attempted to make an arrest and then engaged in a foot pursuit."

Hours after police were called, Abdi was dead.

Police in Ottawa have spent the last few days defending their actions amid calls that the death of Abdi — a Muslim who is originally from Somalia — was racially motivated.

Abdi's family and witnesses have questioned whether officers were slow to provide Abdi with medical care as he lay bleeding and handcuffed on a sidewalk outside his apartment building.

The Special Investigations Unit, which determines whether officers behaved appropriately, is looking into the case.

The responding officers have not been identified. Bordeleau told reporters that many aspects of the incident are still being investigated. But he also spoke to some of the questions raised in the killing of a mentally ill Muslim man:

The investigation into what happened after our officers arrived on scene is being conducted by the SIU. I can’t speak to that investigation.
These types of situations are very difficult for everyone involved and that includes members of our police service and the community.
We understand and sympathize with the family and friends of this individual.
I look to the SIU to provide the answers everyone is looking for as soon as they can.
We are well aware of the context within which we police. Our officers are professional and they are dedicated to protecting the community they serve.

According to the Canadian Broacasting Corp., Abdi was taken down with pepper spray and batons, a scene partially captured on video by a witness in a balcony overhead.

Abdi's brother, Abdirizaq Abdi, described the altercation to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.: "They cut his head on the ground and they were hitting him like this," he said pumping his hands as if pounding something on the ground. "He was bleeding. You can't see his eyes. They're animals."

Witness David Thyne also described a gruesome scene: "And I saw that he was cuffed and one of the officers was hitting him," Thyne said. "He was hitting him pretty bad."

In a statement, Ihsaan Gardee, the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, has called for a "swift and extensive" investigation into Abdi's death:

This is a heartbreaking loss and our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Abdi’s family at this difficult time. Many members of the Ottawa Muslim and Somali communities have serious concerns about how this tragic incident unfolded, including whether prejudice had something to do with Mr. Abdi’s treatment.
It is critical that a full and transparent investigation be swiftly conducted so that Mr. Abdi’s family, and the wider community, get clear answers.
The protection and preservation of human rights and dignity, regardless of skin color, religious belief, or any other characteristic, are integral to our collective and individual sense of safety and inclusion. We welcome the Ottawa Police Service’s pledge to engage the neighborhood’s community members following this tragedy. Trust will need to be restored.

Leaders of Black Lives Matter in Canada expressed dismay at the news of Abdi's killing. “This is just too much,” Pascale Diverlus, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto told the Toronto Metro newspaper. " ... It just feels like every day is another name, another hashtag to add to the list. When will this end? When?”

Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, told the Ottawa Citizen that claims that the police department's use of force was racially motivated were unfounded. He said the controversy was a sign that anti-police rhetoric in the United States was bleeding into Canada.

I'm worried that the conversation is even occurring, to be quite candid. To suggest that race was an issue in this, it's inappropriate. The officers were called to the scene. The officers had to attend. Race, in this case, is a fact, just like your age, your gender, your height. It doesn't have anything to do with our ... decision-making. Our decision-making is based on our training, and our training has nothing to do with race.
That's unfortunate that we're seeing the bleeding of that very difficult rhetoric into Canada now. ... I can obviously be sensitive to it, I'm aware that it's occurring, but it's two separate conversations and not one that's applicable here.

Whether officers tried to promptly get Abdi medical attention also is being questioned. Chief Bordeleau said officers called paramedics 23 seconds after Abdi collapsed and also administered CPR. A video obtained by the Canadian National Post shows Abdi lying unconscious for several minutes before medical intervention begin. "Where's the ambulance, he's going to die," a woman says off camera in the video. "He's bleeding."

A person with knowledge of the police investigation in Abdi's death told the Ottawa Citizen that police only started administering CPR several minutes after Abdi collapsed — after being told to do so by paramedics.

A family spokeswoman told the Ottawa Citizen that doctors at the Ottawa Hospital tried many different treatments, but were unable to revive him. An autopsy was scheduled for Monday, but it was unclear when the results would be released.

Five SIU investigators and one forensic analyst have been assigned to the case to determine whether officers behaved appropriately, according to the unit's website.

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