Last updated: 6 months ago
Tony Loparco, director of the Special Investigations Unit, said in a news release Thursday that there are no reasonable grounds to lay criminal charges against any officers in connection to the Nov. 7, 2015 death of Rodrigo Almonacid Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, 43, a part-time cleaner at a hospital and father of two, died after an incident involving police that began after he locked himself in the bathroom, prompting his wife to call police to his family’s apartment in the west end.
Several officers responded, including a tactical squad carrying a battering ram and shields, and the incident culminated in the repeated use of two conducted energy weapons, better known as Tasers. Gonzalez was later rolled out on a stretcher and admitted to St. Joseph’s Health Centre and died the next day.
According to the SIU, despite the repeated use of a Taser, the cause of Gonzalez’s death was determined to be complications of acute cocaine toxicity.
“The post-mortem report did not indicate that (Taser) discharges played any role in the death,” Loparco wrote, adding there was no evidence of other kinds of excessive force by the police.
Kevin Wolf, the Gonzalez family lawyer, said the family is disappointed with the SIU’s conclusion. Last year, the family filed a $10-million lawsuit against the Toronto Police Services Board and 10 unnamed officers, alleging “grossly excessive” force and protracted assault and battery.
Asked about the lawsuit — which had been paused in the courts until the SIU completed its investigation, meaning a statement of defence has not yet been filed — Chief Mark Saunders said his officers did not act unlawfully, as shown by the SIU’s investigation.
“Based on their decision, they made it very clear that the Taser was not a direct result of the death of that gentlemen,” he told reporters after a Toronto police board meeting Thursday.
“It’s unfortunate when we have any interaction and there’s loss of life. We examine and we look at our procedures and policies and what can we do to prevent that, first and foremost,” Saunders said.
The two unnamed Toronto police officers at the centre of the probe refused to participate in the SIU interview and did not provide the watchdog with copies of their duty notes, as is their legal right.
Wolf called that a cause for concern. “It invites very serious questions as to the scope and integrity of the SIU’s investigation if the subject officers themselves refuse to co-operate in the investigation,” Wolf said.
The civilian watchdog’s investigation included interviews with 13 civilian witnesses and 12 witness officers, a review of a 12-minute audio recording that captured the police negotiation, security footage, medical records, data from the two Tasers used, and a post-mortem report that included a toxicology report.
According to Loparco, the SIU — which probes deaths, serious injuries and allegations of sexual assault involving police in Ontario — did not immediately take over the case because Gonzalez had suffered no serious injuries that required treatment, and toxicology tests showed the presence of cocaine. The police watchdog began investigating after Gonzalez’s death.
According to the watchdog, police responded to a “panicked and frantic” 911 call that suddenly cut off. Upon entry, police could hear noises coming the bathroom and were concerned there was a woman inside being assaulted. “As such, the officer drew his gun and demanded the bathroom door be opened. There was no response.”
An officer was ultimately able to force the door open slightly and could see that Gonzalez was alone, grasping a toilet lid above his head. Other officers soon arrived. According to the SIU, a witness told police Gonzalez “had gone on a rampage, smashing everything in the apartment, and that he had recently consumed cocaine.”
Toronto’s police’s Emergency Task Force (ETF) arrived because Gonzalez was barricaded; one of the ETF officers then began negotiations. When Gonzalez would not open the door, officers from the ETF drilled a hole, and told the SIU they saw him inside with blood on his hands, face and head.
Concerned he may be harming himself, police forced their way into the bathroom to arrest Gonzalez under Ontario’s Mental Health Act.
One officer holding a riot shield approached Gonzalez, and claims he could see that he was holding a four- to six-inch screwdriver. Loparco noted that officers are “unclear” on the vital detail; only one officer said Gonzalez was holding an object that could be used as a weapon.
The Gonzalez family contests that assertion in their lawsuit, claiming he was unarmed.
According to Loparco, an officer holding a shield raised it for protection and “shoved (Gonzalez) backwards, causing him to land on his back in the bathtub which had four to six inches of water in it. (Gonzalez) began lashing out and punching the officers.”
Two of the officers then Tasered Gonzalez a total of eight times. Police then handcuffed him, arrested him under the Mental Health Act, and took him to hospital.
Loparco said there were no concerns with officer conduct until the ETF forced their way into the bathroom, but said their conduct inside was difficult to assess because the audio recording “only offers limited insight into the precise details about what happened.”
Loparco also said the multiple firings of the Taser while Gonzalez was wet and in a pool of water “initially caused me great concern.”
“However, the post-mortem report has assuaged my preliminary concerns with respect to the physiological effects of the CEW use” on Gonzalez, namely that the cause of death was determined to be complications of acute cocaine toxicity.
According to the SIU, the post-mortem report did not indicate that the Taser used played a role in Gonzalez’ death.
“While it is worrisome that there were eight separate discharges by two different (Tasers), some of which overlapped with one another, the evidence establishes that (Gonzalez) was able to struggle through the pain and continue to resist the officers. This would provide a basis for subsequent discharges,” Loparco said.
Loparco concluded there is no evidence to attribute Gonzalez’ injuries or death to the use of excessive force by the police, meaning no charges will be laid against the officers.
The watchdog’s decision came the same day the Toronto police services board discussed the annual report on Taser use. That report was criticized for failing to acknowledge an ongoing investigation into the death of Rui Nabico, 31, who died after going into medical distress when he was Tasered by police in November.
His cause of death is unknown, and is still under investigation by the SIU. However, the Toronto police report states “there were no deaths directly associated with (Taser) use by officers” in 2016.
“How could that report be filed with that sentence with it?” Toronto lawyer Peter Rosenthal asked the board in a deputation. “Why didn’t it say there was a death right after a Tasering and it’s being investigated?”
Saunders and board chair Andy Pringle said the annual report can only include confirmed information, meaning the report will not include the incident until the cause of death is conclusively found to be associated to the Taser.
“There was no secrecy,” Saunders said. “We do not know the cause of death, period.”