Indigenous

Family says police should have reported Azraya Kokopenace's death to Ontario cop watchdog

The provincial police watchdog says it is not investigating the death of a 14-year-old Indigenous girl, who was found by Kenora police officers in “distress” and taken to a local hospital two days before her body was discovered.

Azraya Kokopenace was seen leaving Lake of Woods District Hospital around 11:20 p.m. the evening of April 15, 2016, police said, and spotted entering a wooded area across from the hospital. Her body was found hanging in a tree across the street two days later.

But what happened — and in whose care she was in — in the hours leading up to her death are still unclear, and the teen’s family is demanding an inquest to get to the bottom of it.

Her family’s lawyer says Kenora Ontario Provincial Police should have reported her death to the province’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) — something VICE News has learned they did not.

“The police, to my understanding, take issue with the idea that Azraya was in their custody leading up to her death,” the family’s lawyer Glenn Stuart told VICE News. “However, there is also a clear basis to argue that she was in their custody, or fleeing custody, at the time of her death. One would expect a cautious approach, and an appropriate one would have been for the police to report Azraya’s death to the SIU [Special Investigations Unit].”

Under Ontario law, the chief of a police agency must report “an incident involving one or more of his or her police officers that may reasonably be considered to fall within the investigative mandate of the SIU.” After an investigation, the director of the SIU may lay charges against officers.

“The SIU mandate is narrow and must involve police interaction that results in serious injury (including sexual assault) or death,” said Jason Gennaro, a spokesman for the Ontario Special Investigations Unit. He said the SIU had not been informed of the case by the Kenora OPP.

About 60 percent of incidents reported to the SIU are in-custody injuries and another 9 percent are in-custody deaths, according to the unit’s 2015-16 report released a week ago. However, a person who is injured, killed or commits suicide does not need to be in police custody for police to report the incident to the SIU.

“From what little we know, and there are some gaps in the story, what I would say is there was no obligation for police to call the SIU because it’s so unclear to me even what their authority was to take her in the hospital in the first place,” former SIU director Ian Scott told VICE News.

“Typically matters are reported to the SIU when death or serious injury occurs when there’s much more of a nexus between the death or serious injury and police custody or police action,” he continued. “It seems to me so diffuse here that in my earlier role as SIU director, I would not have faulted Kenora OPP for not calling the SIU in those circumstances.”

Kokopenace, who was living in a group home run by Anishinaabe Abinoojii Family Services, had a history of suicide attempts. She had a run in with police only weeks earlier that ended in two officers pinning the small teenager to the ground.

According to the hospital’s protocol, if a Kenora Ontario Provincial Police officer believes a patient is at low risk for violence, they transfer the responsibility of care to the hospital. If a patient decides to leave treatment, “police will be called to search for a missing patient who may be considered a potential harm to themselves or others,” the hospital’s president and CEO Mark Balcaen told VICE News.

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