Toronto family 'still fighting' for answers a year after Korchinski-Paquet's death: lawyer
Demonstrators mark the first anniversary of the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, the 29-year-old African Indigenous woman who died in the presence of Toronto police officers, in Toronto on Monday, May 24, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
TORONTO -- A year after a Toronto woman fell to her death from a balcony while police were in her home, her family is still seeking answers and challenging what they maintain was a flawed investigation into the incident.
Regis Korchinski-Paquet's family has hired a private investigator and turned to a second police watchdog in an effort to understand what happened on May 27, 2020, and hold those involved to account, said the family's lawyer, Jason Bogle.
A year later, "they find that they're still fighting," Bogle said. "They're still grieving and they're angry."
One of Ontario's police oversight bodies, the Special Investigations Unit, last summer cleared the six Toronto police officers who were in the apartment, saying that while their efforts to de-escalate the situation were unsuccessful, none of them broke the law.
The family rejected the findings and later petitioned to have the case reopened, Bogle said. They allege, among other things, that the SIU has withheld a critical piece of evidence -- Korchinski-Paquet's cellphone, which they said she was using that night.
The SIU said Wednesday that while it does at times reopen investigations when new information comes to light, none was brought forward in connection with the Korchinski-Paquet case.
The agency also denied collecting Korchinski-Paquet's phone or ever having it, and said it had been advised that Toronto police were not in possession of the device.
"The SIU stands by the integrity of its investigation and final report," spokeswoman Monica Hudon said in a statement.
Bogle said the family recently filed a complaint with another oversight body, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, because the SIU's account "doesn't make sense."
The OIPRD confirmed it is investigating, but declined to comment further, citing confidentiality.
The Toronto Police Service also declined to comment, citing the OIPRD investigation, but said Korchinski-Paquet's death was a "tragic case."
The death of Korchinski-Paquet, who was both Indigenous and Black, came just days after George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, was killed when an officer pressed a knee against his neck for nearly nine minutes. A police officer, 45-year-old Derek Chauvin, was found guilty of murder last month in Floyd's death.
In part due to the proximity to Floyd's death, Korchinski-Paquet's death "it drove home the point that this pattern or trend of deaths is not unique to the United States and it also exists here," said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto whose work focuses on race and policing.
In the months that followed, there was "lots of signalling" from public officials and private sector companies around social justice and strengthening equity and diversity, including promises of funding for initiatives for Black Canadians in the latest federal budget, Owusu-Bempah said.
"(There has been) lots of messaging, lots of statements, the creation of policies and documents and all of those things, but I can't say that one year afterwards that I noticed a major tangible change," he said.
In Toronto, where protests sparked by 29-year-old Korchinski-Paquet's death called for the defunding of police, policy change remains largely at the discussion stage, Owusu-Bempah said, adding that these types of shifts typically take years to take root.
Demonstrators continued to call for police reform and defunding Monday during a march marking the anniversary of Korchinski-Paquet's death.
Tensions flared during the rally, culminating in the arrest of two people. Police said both were charged with obstructing a peace officer, and one also faced an assault charge.
The two people were released out of safety concerns after a crowd surrounded the custody wagon, a police spokesperson said.
Some observers criticized police for the arrests, noting similar gatherings by those opposing provincial pandemic rules have been allowed to proceed without any charges laid.
Owusu-Bempah said given the purpose and timing of Monday's rally, "for the police not to allow, enable that to take place without arrests, kind of points to the problems that exist within policing."
According to the SIU's report, police were called to Korchinski-Paquet's home because she and her brother were fighting. The pair and their mother had each called 911 during the argument, which began as a dispute over the volume of the TV after Korchinski-Paquet had a seizure, it said.
The 911 operator inquired about any mental health issues and was told Korchinski-Paquet had epilepsy and had experienced seizures earlier that day, the report said.
The document said that once police arrived at the apartment, two officers blocked Korchinski-Paquet from getting to her mother and brother. They eventually let her back into the apartment so she could use the bathroom, it said.
Korchinski-Paquet then went out onto the 24th-floor balcony and prevented officers from reaching her by holding her body against the door, the report said.
She then tried to scale the balcony and cross onto the one next door, which is when she lost her balance and fell to her death, the document said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2021.