Members of the local Indigenous community have issued a series of calls to action for Hamilton police following the alleged assault of an Indigenous man during an arrest in May.
Const. Brian Wren was charged with assault after a Hamilton police investigation into the incident, which happened at a gas station on the mountain on May 26th.
The family of the man who was arrested has identified him as Patrick Tomchuk and have said it’s not the first time he’s been arrested, but also allege that it’s not the first time he’s been assaulted during an arrest.
“It’s just this time, there was proof,” Dhelia Baldwin told reporters on Tuesday outside the central police station.
“Now he’s just afraid of [police], so when he is in trouble, his first instinct is to run because it’s happened so many times before. It’s just this time, it was finally caught on camera.”
Baldwin hasn’t seen the video but said she’s expecting to see it on Wednesday during Tomchuk’s bail hearing at the John Sopinka Courthouse.
That video evidence is what resulted in Wren being charged with assault.
Speaking to the media, Chief Frank Bergen said the Special Investigations Unit didn’t invoke its mandate because the man’s injuries weren’t severe enough to meet their threshold for a probe.
That’s what prompted Hamilton police to launch their own criminal investigation.
He called the video “disturbing” and said Wren was suspended as soon as investigators saw what happened during the arrest, which was related to a stolen vehicle investigation.
“I’m not comfortable with what we saw,” said Bergen, saying he reached out to the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre after the charge was laid against Wren.
“In some cases, policing is messy … but we also have to hold our members and I hold myself accountable for when we do things poorly. When we can do things better, it’s better to sit at a table to discuss it, to find a path together.”
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Audrey Davis, executive director of the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre, hopes that path forward will involve a number of calls to action, including Wren being met with “appropriately serious consequences” for the alleged assault and a “transparent” investigation into whether Wren’s actions constitute a hate crime.
Davis is also calling for systemic changes within the Hamilton police service, most notably for all officers to be equipped with body cameras and for all police vehicles to be equipped with dashcams.
She said this incident is one of many experienced by Indigenous residents, as well as other Hamiltonians of colour, during interactions with police.
“This is an incident that finally got some attention because there are charges laid – because of the video. There are many other incidences that we could speak of but have no actual backing because there were no charges laid.”
The calls to action also include Hamilton police appointing an Indigenous liaison officer and an Indigenous representative on the Hamilton police services board.
There are no immediate plans to have Hamilton police officers wear body cameras and previous attempts during the pandemic were shot down due to the financial cost associated with it.
However, Bergen said the service sought a provincial grant application for $1.6 million to install cameras in police vehicles and the hope is that that initiative will roll out by 2023.
“At this point, we’ll have to continue to talk about body-worn cameras because of the financial impact on our capital dollar,” said Bergen.
He also added that the service has been working on appointing an Indigenous liaison officer, saying it would “certainly be helpful” in cases like this one.
While the police services board chair Pat Mandy is Indigenous, her role is not exclusively to represent the interests of Indigenous community members and Bergen said adding any additional roles would be up to the city or the province to reconfigure the board’s actual makeup.
Baldwin said she hopes the police services board will revisit the idea of equipping body cameras to front-line officers.
“I think it’d make a difference to the whole Indigenous community itself because again, it’s not just my brother that this has happened to.”
If Wren is found guilty of assault, Baldwin and Tomchuk’s mother Olga said she hopes the consequences prevent anything similar from happening again in the future.
“It’s not just my Patrick, it’s the rest of them that haven’t been recognized … because who knows? What’s he going to do to the next one, and it’s not taped?”
Wren’s first court appearance was on July 21 and he’s scheduled to appear in court again later this month.
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