ORILLIA - An Orillia police officer accused in a lawsuit of manhandling and abusing two Indigenous men in 2018 was previously charged in 2007 with assault, but was cleared following a criminal trial.
Randall May, 57, and Aaron Keeshig, 50, say they were subjects of racial profiling in the 2018 incident. They accuse the OPP — two identified officers along with other unidentified officers — of assault, battery, wrongful imprisonment, illegal detention, negligence, misfeasance in public office and breaching their rights and are suing for $200,000 each.
The altercation, which was videotaped by another man from inside May’s home, occurred on May’s Ramara Township property in September 2018.
“The unnecessary and unjustified violent police takedown of Aaron and Randy is not unique,” their lawyer, Promise Holmes Skinner, said in an emailed response to questions about the lawsuit.
“Police violence targeted against Indigenous people is alarmingly common, and is part of a larger problem of systemic racism within law enforcement in Canada," said Skinner. "There is no doubt in our minds that race played a major factor in why police decided to approach Aaron and Randy in the first place, as well as the extreme and gratuitous level of violence they then used against them.”
In 2007, Mark Connor, one of the officers named in the lawsuit filed last week, was accused of assault while working at the OPP detachment in Wasaga Beach.
But a criminal trial two years later resulted in his acquittal.
“In my view, although I agree that this incident was an ugly scene for the many who viewed it, and especially for Mr. Bevins (who accused the officer of assault), his wife and his two small children, there is only one person responsible for it occurring, that is Mr. Bevins,” Justice Richard Blouin wrote, finding the officer not guilty.
In the decision, the judge described how a dispute resulted after a man interfered when the officer asked another man for identification outside a bar. The situation escalated, the man resisted arrest prompting the officer to use pepper spray and strike the man three times in the face.
Justice Blouin found the officer “used only such force as was necessary to effect the arrest.”
In the lawsuit filed with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Toronto last week, the Indigenous half-brothers accuse the police of racial profiling when police approached them in September 2018.
According to the statement of claim, the first officer took an interest in May, who was pushing his bike home after dinner, because he believed him to be intoxicated and he matched the description of a traffic hazard complaint about a “native male” who was reported to have fallen off his bike on Atherley Road earlier that day.
“When I walk into my driveway, that’s when Const. Connor — I discovered his name after — drove up and asked me to stop,” said May in a phone interview this week. “I told him he was on private property.”
Keeshig, who had stopped on the way home for a quick dip in Lake Couchiching at Tudhope Park, arrived shortly after police and said he tried to defuse the situation.
“When I approached inside of my brother’s yard, he was holding onto him and being a little rough with him,” added Keeshig. “Things just escalated from there and within about two to three minutes there had to be about 10 police standing around.”
In the video, May appears to have been pushed into a bush area.
According to the statement, a second officer grabbed Keeshig’s arm and flipped him onto the asphalt driveway, cuffed him and then turned his attention to May.
May said he was trying to record it all on his phone, but was tased repeatedly, nine times in all, and the phone was ultimately kicked out of his hands.
“When you’re in a traumatic situation and everything slows, time kind of slows down and you can just experience what’s happening outside of yourself. So the way it felt was like I could hear myself screaming and yet some way I was outside of the pain,” said May.
Both men said they have faced racism, racial profiling and harassment from police throughout their lives and they see police as a source of danger.
Keeshig said he knew from past experiences that to do anything that day could put him in danger.
“If I were to do something, let’s put it this way, he probably wouldn’t have shot me with that Taser gun, he probably would have used a real one, that’s what I think in my mind,” he said.
The video, which is one continuous shot, shows the camera person locking the doors and racing across the house to lock another set of doors when the situation outside between the two men and police escalates.
May said the man, his daughter’s former husband who was visiting, was frightened for his own safety and ultimately hid in the basement.
Cory Wanless, co-counsel for May and Keeshig in the lawsuit, maintains police had no right to enter May’s property and the behaviour that followed was illegal. Tasers, he added, are not meant as an arrest tool, but rather ought to be used only when there is imminent danger.
“Aaron and Randy live with the real fear that the police will approach them for no reason, and if things go wrong, they could end up dead,” said Holmes Skinner. “Randy and Aaron have brought this lawsuit both to seek justice for themselves, but also as a way of spotlighting the larger issue of police violence against Indigenous peoples in Canada.”
She said she hopes that lawsuits like this will spur a reckoning about police violence and racial profiling against Indigenous and Black people in Canada similar to the situation in the United States where there has been protests and an outcry against police violence targeting Black people.
The lawsuit remains a claim and is unproven by the court.
OPP officials have not yet filed a statement of defence.
In response to queries, an OPP spokesman said they don’t comment when a civil claim is involved.