Black University of Toronto student sues police over alleged assault, detention

The lawyer said the family decided to pursue the lawsuit after their calls for police accountability were met with silence

By Jordan Omstead and Sharif Hassan in Toronto

The alleged violent assault of a young Black man by Toronto police officers highlights the disproportionate use of force and ongoing racial profiling levelled by the city’s police force, his family and lawyer said Monday, calling for increased accountability and denouncing a proposal to increase their budget.

In a statement of claim filed in the Superior Court of Justice, Hasani O’Gilvie alleges three officers tackled him, pressed a knee to his neck and repeatedly shot him with a stun gun in August 2021 while he pleaded he had done nothing wrong.

At a news conference Monday, O’Gilvie’s family and lawyer said it’s a case of police unnecessarily and violently escalating an incident with a Black man only for officers to later claim he looked like a person they were searching for.

“Whether we like it or not, he is symbolic of the experiences endured by many young Black males in North America,” his mother Christine O’Gilvie said at a news conference.

The statement of claim alleges the 27-year-old University of Toronto student was assaulted by three Toronto police officers near a North York grocery store on his way to school.

“This is a case of someone being assaulted for walking while Black,” his lawyer David Shellnutt said. “He looked like somebody who police allege they were looking for.” 

O’Gilvie and his mother are seeking $2.4 million in damages as well as $250,000 under the Family Law Act, according to the statement of claim.

Toronto police said they would not comment as the matter is before the courts, and the Toronto Police Association – which represents civilian and uniform members – says the officers are not commenting as the case is also before a review tribunal.

“In many cases, enforcement actions are met with resistance; not everyone wants to be arrested,” said Toronto Police Association president Jon Reid in a statement. “As these members face charges under the Police Services Act, the Association will ensure they are treated fairly throughout this process.”

According to the claim against the three officers, which was filed in June and has yet to be tested in court, O’Gilvie gave his name to an officer who stopped him for questioning after following him down a walkway near the grocery store. The claim alleges the officer did not believe him and drew a stun gun shortly before two other officers arrived.

O’Gilvie put his hands up and complied but the officers allegedly tackled him to the ground, the claim says. One officer then allegedly put his knee on his neck and repeatedly shot him with a stun gun while O’Gilvie “was subdued, not resisting, on the ground, and restraints being applied,” the claim alleges.

The claim alleges O’Gilvie was only released after the officers searched his bag and found identification proving what he told police. 

“Regardless of mistaken identity of who they were looking for, that this matter ended up with a young U of T student with a knee on his neck, the same manoeuvre that killed George Floyd just a year prior, and being repeatedly stunned by the same officer who was doing that is unacceptable,” Shellnutt said. 

The Special Investigations Unit, which launches a probe whenever police conduct may have resulted in death, serious injury, sexual assault or the discharge of a firearm, said it is not investigating O’Gilvie’s case.

“Generally speaking, the SIU does not investigate CEW (Conducted Energy Weapon) discharges unless there is a serious injury or death,” the unit said in a statement.

Shellnutt said body camera footage of the incident exists and claimed it was being withheld by police. Toronto police did not immediately respond to a request for comment about that claim.

News of the alleged assault comes after then-police Chief James Ramer apologized to the city’s Black residents last June as he released a report with previously unseen race-based police data.

The data shows Black people in the city faced a disproportionate amount of police enforcement and use of force in 2020 and were more likely to have an officer point a gun at them – whether perceived as armed or unarmed – than white people in the same situation.

“Here we are, a few months post-apology, and rather than requesting reflection by, redesign or re-tasking of TPS, Mayor (John) Tory proposes to award them with another 50 million,” Shellnutt said, referring to the mayor’s recent proposal, backed last week by the Police Services Board, for a $48.3-million hike to the force’s budget to a total just over $1.1 billion in 2023.

Toronto Mayor John Tory and police Chief Myron Demkiw have said the increase would help boost public safety and allow the force to improve its lagging response times.

Christine O’Gilvie said there needs to be more accountability for police and the board that oversees them. She called the increase to the budget “a slap in the face.” 

“You’re giving them more money to brutalize us rather than putting the money where the communities need it the most,” she said.

O’Gilvie, who only returned to school last week, was not in a condition to speak at the news conference Monday, his family said.

The claim states he continues to suffer severe emotional and psychological trauma from the alleged assault, which left him with facial scarring and injuries to his upper body.

He came to Canada at eight years old when the family emigrated from Jamaica, his mother said. She described her son as a calm and respectful young man who enjoys nature and art. 

“His teachers would always tell that Hasani was a quiet man, and always followed instructions,” she said. 

Since the alleged attack, Hasani has further “receded into himself”, his mother said, finding some refuge in regular walks. 

“He finds healing in nature, so he tended to go for many walks after the incident.” 

Kenneth O’Gilvie, Hasani’s father, said his son now fears police, and avoids getting close to them on the streets.

“The trust that he usually has in the police, he lost it. He doesn’t think that they are there really to protect him,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2023. 

Banner image via The Canadian Press

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