Connor Engels is feeling uneasy.
He’s posing for a portrait outside Toronto police’s 14 Division station with his lawyer, David Shellnut, and just being present in a space where he saw people near him being violently arrested brings it all back.
For nearly six months after the clearances of homeless encampments at Lamport Stadium Park and Alexandra Park last summer, Engels processed what he witnessed, and then, just under the time limit, he filed an official complaint documenting what he had seen Toronto police do, including photos and videos he’d gathered as evidence.
In his complaint to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, the civilian body that handles public complaints against Ontario police, Engels detailed the tense moment-by-moment developments in the violent clash between police and protesters outside 14 Division after the clearing at Lamport . There was police pepper spray, baton strikes and violent takedowns, and Engels documented the names of some of the officers involved.
In February, to Engels’ surprise and disappointment, the complaint was screened-out at the intake phase, effectively closing the case. The decision not to review his complaint leaves only a judicial court review as a recourse to challenge it, which Engels is doing with the help of Shellnutt.
According to Shellnutt, the OIPRD’s reason — that Engels was “too far removed” from the police actions — conflicts with a provision of the Police Services Act that allows for third parties to an incident to file complaintsan ability that was scrapped in the 1990s and later restored due to concerns directly affected parties may not want to file a complaint.
“The directly affected parties may file their complaints,” the OIPRD wrote Engels. “There is nothing in the complaint that would clearly suggest that you were one of those people in the crowd who had been allegedly assaulted, pepper-sprayed, hit by metal baton in stabbing motion, struck in the head, and other physical contacts.”
While “nothing said in this letter is meant to minimize the gravity of the situation, the issues raised, or how you have been impacted… the Director has determined that it is in the public interest to proceed with those complaints filed by members of the public most directly impacted by the conduct of the officers at Lamport Stadium Park and 14th Division.”
While others have filed complaints about the clearings and protest — the Star is aware of at least two others — the OIPRD told the Star in an email it could not say exactly how many have been filed. “The OIPRD receives over 5,000 complaints a year and is required to treat them individually. Accordingly, the agency doesn’t track the total number of complaints that may appear related to particular events unless there is a reason to do so, such as if the Director consolidates complaints for the purpose of investigation or undertakes a systemic review,” the agency said in the email. Such a consolidation or review has not happened regarding the clearances, it added.
The agency did not answer questions about its interpretation of the police act, nor whether it would reconsider the decision to screen out Engels’ complaint.
According to Shellnutt, it is unreasonable to screen Engels out because he was not “directly affected.” He was, the lawyer said.
“We feel that what he’s been able to document and share is incredibly important,” said Shellnutt, who is representing Engels at no charge.
Police observers, including John Sewell of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition and Abby Deshman of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which has pushed for the acceptance of third-party complaints, agree the OIPRD has made errors in the handling of Engels’ complaint.
“If being a bystander with good evidence does not bring you within the third-party rule,” Sewell said in an email, “then what’s the meaning of a third party being authorized to make a complaint?”
Often, those on the receiving end of alleged police misconduct are facing related criminal charges and not in a position to file a complaint, or they may fear reprisals or they may not know that a complaint can be filed, said Deshman.
That’s why the CCLA fought for many years so third parties, including public interest groups, can submit complaints and have them heard and adjudicated.
“I’m not even sure it’s a third-party complaint, quite frankly,” said Deshman. “He was directly impacted by the misconduct at issue.”
To be sure, Engels, 29, does not consider himself merely a “third-party” witness to events. He said the experience shook him.
Engels studied criminology, peace, conflict and justice, as well as sociology and political science at the University of Toronto. He’d also worked in a homeless shelter and had grown frustrated with inadequate measures to house people.
By chance, Engels said he caught a news video the morning of July 20 that mentioned the Alexandra Park evictions were happening that day. He decided he had to go, and hopped on his bike. “I felt obliged to go there, and just to observe, to see how the city was going to handle this housing crisis in the middle of a pandemic,” Engels said in an interview. “And I was really disturbed.”
The city used social workers, police and security to clear out the encampments that sprung up and grew during the pandemic, as many felt shelters were less safe.
At the encampment clearing, Engels told an officer what he saw was “not right.” In response, Engels said, the officer went out of his way to “step in front of me,” turned on his body-worn camera, and then threatened to arrest him. Turning on the camera only at that moment felt like a “weaponization” of the officer’s body camera, Engels said.
Engels left, only to encounter the same officer the next day outside 14 Division, where a crowd had gathered to protest arrests and the clearing of Lamport. A line of officers had formed in front of the station. Engels moved up to the line.
One speaker at the protest, microphone in hand and meters from police, spoke of the housing crisis and also delivered a message to the officers behind his back: “You need to be terrified by us.”
As detailed in photos and video of that scene, compiled by the website The Hoser, there was shoving and water and water bottles tossed at police, as police waded into the crowd of protesters and made arrests, using batons, blows and pepper spray blasts.
Engels said what he witnessed outside 14 Division, and at the encampments, reminded him of police actions he’d studied in classes. “It’s something that’s happened for years in Canada but I just never ever would have thought I’d see it with my own eyes. It felt surreal. And it was unbelievable.”
He went home “shaking, disturbed,” and in the days, weeks and months to come, he pulled together pictures and footage, including his own, to piece together what he did see, and what happened. It included watching and rewatching for hours “people getting punched in the face” and people screaming after getting pepper-sprayed.
“I suffered a lot reliving that footage,” said Engels. “I found it really, really difficult to try to finish that report.”
And then, “extremely disappointing and demoralizing (for the OIPRD) to try to split hairs about how close I was to indiscriminate pepper spray. Or if I was the person next to the person who got beaten,” said Engels. “It made me really lose a lot of my trust in that institution, in the police and the OIPRD.”
The process of challenging the OIPRD decision, said Shellnutt, is underway.
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