The Court sentenced a police constable to 12 months of imprisonment for failing to provide the necessaries of life and criminal negligence causing the death of Debra Chrisjohn, an Indigenous woman, who died while in police custody. Harmful stereotypes and bias with respect to drug users and Indigenous women were relevant to denunciation and the broader social context for sentencing. A jail sentence was warranted in order to convey the irrefutable message that Ms. Chrisjohn’s life was valued and valuable.
Debra Chrisjohn, an Indigenous woman, died while in police custody. The cause of death was a heart attack induced by ingestion of methamphetamine. She was arrested by the accused, Cst. Nicholas Doering, on an outstanding Ontario Provincial Police [“OPP”] warrant. During the time that she was in Cst. Doering’s custody, her condition deteriorated. She went from being conscious, physically agitated and verbal to being immobile, non-verbal and unable to stand or walk on her own. Cst. Doering did not obtain medical assistance for Ms. Chrisjohn. When he transferred her to the custody of the OPP, he told the OPP officers that she had been seen by a paramedic, and that her condition had not changed during his interactions with her. These statements were false. The statements made to OPP officers further reduced the likelihood that Ms. Chrisjohn would get the medical assistance that she so desperately required.
Cst. Nicholas Doering was found guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life and criminal negligence causing death. His conduct represented a marked and substantial departure from the standard of care of a reasonable and prudent police officer. When a police officer is convicted of crime, the sentence must reflect the special role and authority of police in society. The powers conferred on police require that they be held to a high standard of accountability (R v Cook, 2010 ONSC 5016). Crimes committed by police officers represent a breach of the public trust, therefore police are held to a higher standard than would be expected of ordinary citizens, and the principles of denunciation and general deterrence become magnified in the sentencing of police (R v Forcillo, 2018 ONCA 402; R v Ferguson, 2008 SCC 6).
At trial, there was no evidence to suggest that Ms. Chrisjohn’s Indigenous status was a factor in the commission of the offences. Racial bias, however, is often subtle and subconscious. Be that as it may, there is no evidence to suggest that Cst. Doering was motivated by racial bias. Even if Ms. Chrisjohn’s status did not contribute to the offences, it must be acknowledged. Canadian courts have come to recognize that, just as Indigenous offenders are disproportionately represented in Canadian prisons, Indigenous women and girls are disproportionately vulnerable to violence and other forms of mistreatment. (Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls; R v Barton, 2019 SCC 33).
Ms. Chrisjohn’s Indigenous status is also relevant because the death of an Indigenous woman in police custody has an impact beyond the parties in court. Tensions between Indigenous communities and police agencies have been documented by various Canadian courts and tribunals (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation v Ferrier, 2019 ONCA 1025; R v AM, 2020 NUCJ 4).
Cst. Doering must not be penalized for the acts of others, or for systemic failings that have generated racism and discrimination. Yet, just as it would be wrong to punish Cst. Doering for societal failings, so too would it be wrong to ignore the broader context. This case calls for a sentence of real jail. Nothing short of that can reflect the gravity of the offences in this case. The sentence imposed must denounce in the strongest terms the conduct of the offender, and the resulting harm. It must reinforce the societal values that were breached such as the sanctity of human life, the right of all persons to a minimum standard of care, and the duty of police to treat all persons in their custody with respect and humanity.
Cst. Doering demonstrated a wanton and reckless disregard for Ms. Chrisjohn’s life. He failed to obtain necessary medical treatment, ignored the gross deterioration of her condition, and he lied about her condition to the OPP, making it even less likely that her life would be saved. The essence of culpability lies in Cst. Doering’s devaluation of Ms. Chrisjohn’s life. The sentence must convey the irrefutable message that Ms. Chrisjohn’s life was valued and valuable.