Hamilton Police Services Board won’t support judicial inquiry into arrests of majority-Black housing advocates


Published January 24, 2022 at 6:33 pm

Three more individuals were arrested Friday afternoon in Hamilton, two days after a physical confrontation between police and protestors at an encampment site at JC Beemer Park.

Saying it lacks such investigative powers, the Hamilton Police Services Board (HPSB) will not support a judical inquiry into officers’ conduct during the arrests of six housing advocates in the city two months ago.

Leaders in Hamilton’s Black community, numerous social justice groups and a major Ontario union have called for the dropping of charges against the six activists who were arrested on Nov. 24 and 26 while protesting encampment evictions in Hamilton. Five of the six young people whose cases are now before the courts are Black.

The initial string of arrests came when Sarah Jama and several housing advocates went to J.C. Beemer Park on Nov. 24 to protest the removal of an encampment and its residents who suffered a devastating early-morning fire. They claimed, at the time, that the options to relocate the encampment residents were not adequate. Tensions rose to the point where there was a clash, leading to arrests and charges such as assaulting and obstructing a police officer. Two days later, at the Hamilton Central Police Station less than 1 km away from the park, there was a demonstration against those arrests on a bitterly cold Friday afternoon. More people were taken into custody and charged.

Rowa Mohamad has identified herself as the 24-year-old woman who was injured while being arrested at Central station on Nov. 26. The Ontario Special Investigations Unit (SIU) opened an investigation into that. They discontinued it this week, stating that “the woman did not, in fact, sustain a ‘serious injury’ within the mandate of the SIU.”

In Monday’s announcement, the HPSB cited the SIU as part of the “accountable oversight” of the Hamilton Police Service. In explaining the decision not to support calls for a judicial inquiry, the HPSB said it “is a governance body that does not have investigative powers. A Public Inquiry is beyond the Board’s powers and mandate. The ability to establish a Public Inquiry rests with the provincial Lieutenant Governor in Council.” The statement added, ” The Hamilton Police Service is subject to numerous levels of effective and accountable oversight, including, but not limited to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) and the Office of the Independent Review Director (OIPRD). These are armslength agencies that investigate police interactions with the public. They are equipped to investigate matters within their respective mandates.”

The HPSB added, “We need to acknowledge and understand the past, but more importantly, we must spend our time and energy on making a better future. The Board and the Service are committed to effecting change together with the communities we serve. That commitment is an ongoing commitment, which predated these incidents and will continue going forward.”

The police services board’s seven members are chair Pat Mandy, vice-chair Fred Bennink, Mel Athulathmudali, Geordie Elms, and three city councillors, Ward 2 Coun. Jason Farr, Ward 6 Coun. Tom Jackson, and Ward 15 Coun. Judi Partridge.

The current lieutenant-governor of Ontario, the Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, was appointed in 2014 by then-premier Kathleen Wynne.

The Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion wrote in a tweet that more than 1,110 residents of Hamilton and Ontario asked for a judicial review.

The week after the six arrests, Hamilton Afro-Canadian Caribbean Association (ACCA) president Evelyn Myrie told a news conference that Black leaders in the city “were shocked to see the swiftness of charges being laid against these individuals, these young people whom we have taught to get involved, to make change … You want to build trust, here’s an opportunity to show you are serious, honest and transparent in this regard. We can address this by dropping all of these charges. The young people who have been charged, they are taking considerable risk to help unhoused people in our community.”

The arrests also came the same week that HPS Chief Frank Bergen held a meeting entitled, Rebuilding Trust With The Black Community.

Since the arrests, a motion to create a humans rights-centre ‘Hamilton solution’ to houselessness has gained momentum at city council. Ward 3 Coun. Nrinder Nann, whose area includes Beemer Park, drafted the motion, and it has been supported by Farr, whose ward includes the Central police station.

Unhoused Hamiltonians, however, have been put under further strain due to the Omicron surge and an especially cold January. At one point recently, every shelter in the city was in a COVID-19 outbreak, meaning no new people could come in from the cold for a night.

A GoFundMe campaign created to provide Jama, Mohamad and the four other accused with a legal defence fund has raised $42,270. That is shy of its goal of $50,000.

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