Police chief disputes account of St. Laurent mall gun call, releases security images


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Shaamini Yogaretnam

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Feb 23, 2021  •  5 minutes ago  •  5 minute read Slide from Ottawa Police Chief’s presentation at OPSB meeting. A still from St. Laurent Shopping Centre’s surveillance video on Dec. 27. Photo by Ottawa Police Service /handout

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Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly is publicly disputing what he called a “viral campaign of misinformation and disinformation” following a gun call at St. Laurent Shopping Centre at the end of 2020.

The incident, first reported by CBC Ottawa, gave way to public cries for justice for the “valued seven” — a group of young Black men who said they were at the mall to plan a music video to combat gun violence when they were surrounded by police with guns drawn.

Police ultimately seized a replica firearm from the scene, but the issues of who called 911 with what information and how the police response unfolded and affected a group of racialized men were questioned by community groups and politicians of all levels of government.

A young Black man told CBC Ottawa that the encounter with police left him traumatized.

The 19-year-old music producer and youth organizer told CBC that he planned to shoot a music video and was meeting others there to plan the shoot.

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“A group of seven young Black men were waiting for the videographer outside the St. Laurent Shopping Centre when (the man) said they were surrounded out of nowhere by about a dozen police cars and officers with weapons drawn,” according to the CBC.

The man told the CBC “he tried to explain to police there must have been a misunderstanding, but an officer pointed his gun at him. He said he was then handcuffed and put in a police cruiser.”

In a subsequent op-ed written by the man in the Toronto Star, he wrote, “We were not wearing ski-masks and brandishing a weapon to ignite a public safety response.”

The Citizen did not report on the original incident, nor has it spoken with any of the young men who were there.

At Monday’s police board meeting, the service made the unprecedented move of revealing not just a breakdown of the call as received by police but showing still surveillance images taken from the mall grounds and reading a letter sent by mall owners to the chief of police. Police said they have reviewed the video footage, but do not possess a copy of it to share.

“I do not normally provide detailed operational reviews on such matters at board meetings, but unfortunately this incident was the subject of a massive amount of misinformation online, in mainstream media and within the community,” Sloly said.

The police board received the same update one month ago at its January meeting in an in-camera portion of the meeting that was hidden from the public.

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Sloly said the incident took place on Dec. 27, 2020 at St. Laurent mall at approximately 7 p.m. when, according to a letter from the mall’s security manager read aloud by the chief, “a passenger car parked within the fixed view of one of our security cameras.”

The mall security guard took control of the camera to further investigate and “then observed a person in the passenger seat wearing a ski mask and holding what credibly appeared to be a handgun,” Sloly said.

Narrating the still image on the screen, Sloly said: “This image clearly shows a man in a car, wearing a ski mask and holding a handgun.

“This handgun looks real. It is, in fact, an almost perfect replica of a 9-mm Beretta handgun. It has the exact look, weight and feel of the real model. For the average person, it is almost indistinguishable.”

The service also showed a close-up of the actual replica handgun seized in the investigation and, later in its presentation, side-by-side images of replica and real firearms.

Sloly told the meeting that police officers arrived within four minutes of being dispatched to the area and were treating it “as a real call for a real crime in progress that involved a group of people armed with a potentially deadly firearms which was taking place at a mall frequented by families and children.”

Sloly said when the officers arrived on scene, they stopped the vehicle “and arrested the … people involved, located the replica handgun and completed the investigation.”

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Sloly said police were told that the group of men were making a video, and had brought a balaclava and the replica handgun as props. Police then released all the arrested people.

“The vehicle stop, the arrest, the location of the replica firearm and the balaclavas, the investigation and the release of the … persons all took place within 20 minutes,” Sloly said. He also told the board that the responding officers advised the group of the appropriate steps to take — like securing permits — when making videos using props.

Sloly said three of the people were “young persons,” who police drove home to their parents.

A review of the call — including of the 911 audio tapes and the mall security footage — found no conduct or policy issues, the chief said. Sloly said all police personnel involved “acted appropriately and professionally.”

Board chair Coun. Diane Deans said while “the board satisfied itself that the call for service was handled reasonably and responsibly by the OPS,” the board “felt there was misinformation circulating about what occurred that day and it was important to correct these disparities as they have a significant impact on public trust.”

Ottawa police, meanwhile, will ban all non-OPS insignia from uniforms, which includes any patches depicting the “thin blue line,” in a move to secure public trust.

In an email first sent to all members Monday afternoon, the service announced that, effective immediately, “there are to be no additions, modifications, personalization, or other exceptions (to uniforms) unless permitted by the chief.” The service also told members that any uniform that currently deviates from this policy is “to be returned to the state they were (originally) issued.”

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Indeed, public delegates taking issue with the patches have, for months, made submissions to the board about the symbol and its appearance on OPS uniforms.

Speaking to reporters before the board meeting, Sloly also responded to the federal government’s proposal to have cities decide how to implement bylaws restricting handguns. Mayor Jim Watson’s office told the Citizen last week that Watson would get advice from Sloly before deciding if the city should pursue banning handguns under federal legislation.

Sloly, however, said, “It will ultimately be a decision for the mayor and the council to make. I will provide that needed advice as required.”

Sloly said, “The proposed changes that have come down in the last several weeks, as a police service, we support anything that can reduce crime guns that are victimizing our communities in and around the nation’s capital here.”

Sloly estimated that there are about 25,000 legal gun owners in the Ottawa/Gatineau area.

“For the vast, vast majority of people, these are good, decent people. They raise good families, they do their best to make a contribution. They have legitimate interest and legal ownership of guns.”

Sloly said the majority of illegal firearms in the city are coming from the U.S. into Canada.

“So anything that strengthens our ability to interdict illegal firearms crossing the border and reaching the streets of Ottawa, we will support.”

Legally owned firearms, Sloly said, can be used in incidents of domestic violence and self-harm.

“Anything we can do to reduce the potential for that harm is important.”

syogaretnam@postmedia.com

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