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He was detained by police after sending a tweet. 8 years later, he’s fighting for a public hearing

A man who was illegally detained by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and housed for six days at a psychiatric unit against his will in 2015 is determined to bring his case to a public hearing.

Andrew Abbass is seeking accountability in a public forum for the actions of RNC officers

A man with blue eyes is wearing a black hat and button up shirt.

Police and Public Trust, a CBC News Atlantic investigative unit project, scrutinizes the largely off-limits police complaint and discipline systems across the region. Journalists are using access-to-information laws, and in some cases court challenges, to obtain discipline records and data.

A man who was illegally detained by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and housed for six days at a psychiatric unit against his will in 2015 is determined to bring his case to a public hearing.

But the police officers at the centre of the complaints have gone to court to stop that from happening.

Andrew Abbass filed public complaints against the now-retired Staff Sgt. Tim Buckle and Const. Joe Smyth in 2017, when new information surfaced during an unrelated police shooting inquiry.

After numerous years, reports and appeals, the acting commissioner with the RNC police complaints commission has sent the matter to a public hearing.

However, even that is in limbo, as both officers have applied to the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador for judicial review.

"At the end of the day, no one has been found to be fully accountable in any meaningful way," said Abbass, 42, in a recent interview at his home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

"I wouldn't be able to sleep. As stressful as it is, I kind of feel like I'm on the right path. It's the path I was forced to take, but it's still the one I'm supposed to take."

It's been eight years since the alleged misconduct happened. Both Abbass and an expert in police discipline say the process against the two officers has dragged on far too long and speaks to the need for deep reform on police complaints procedures.

It's expected there will be two separate hearings. Smyth's public hearing — should it proceed — will focus on private BlackBerry messages between he and Buckle after Abbass was detained. The hearing for Buckle, meanwhile, will examine Abbass's detainment and the events that followed.

Political commentary

Abbass first came to the RNC's attention in Corner Brook in 2014, when he attempted to charge then prime minister Stephen Harper and his foreign affairs minister for "inciting genocide by the state of Israel against the Palestinian people."

Abbass had applied to the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador to hear his argument. The federal government issued a response, but a judge ultimately declined to hear the case in 2017.

"I was trying to spark a conversation," Abbass explained.

Then, on April 5, 2015 — Easter Sunday — Smyth, a member of the premier's security detail, shot and killed Don Dunphy in his home in Mitchell's Brook, about 45 minutes outside St. John's.

Dunphy was an injured worker who often strongly criticized the province's workers' compensation system online.

Smyth, investigating a tweet sent by Dunphy that was interpreted as a threat, said Dunphy pointed a firearm at him.

The six days were like a vacation compared to what came after.

– Andrew Abbass

Abbass saw the two incidents as interconnected examples of government overreach, and made his feelings known on social media the following day.

"They were so paranoid. They were looking at everything without checks and balances in place to ensure someone isn't just misreading somebody else's intention," he said. "That's how it ended up happening."

Abbass said he heard an interview with the premier on CBC Radio, in which he said there would be a cracking down of social media monitoring in the wake of Dunphy's shooting. He saw that as Davis doubling down, and considered it an affront to free speech.

Abbass tweeted: "How about this, premier of N.L.: I'm going to bring down Confederation and have politicians executed. Ready to have me shot, coward?"

The tweet, he admits, was meant to antagonize.

"I figured they would arrest me."

Four RNC officers came to Abbass's home in Corner Brook where he was living with his pregnant girlfriend and detained him under the Mental Health Care and Treatment Act.

Despite spending the next six days in the psychiatric ward of the Western Memorial Regional Hospital in Corner Brook, Abbass was never charged with a crime. Nor was he certified as suffering from any psychiatric condition.

"The six days were like a vacation compared to what came after. The six days was sitting, drinking tea and talking to people, wondering what's going to happen next," Abbass said.

"At the end of the day, nothing was lawful. Everything that was done to me never should have happened, so everything that has happened since then, this is the fruit of the poison seed. This is the tree that grew and there's no indication that anyone wants to address that yet."

In the wake of Abbass's arrest, the RCMP got a warrant to search his home over a tweet they viewed as potentially threatening against Stephen Harper. The tweet was sent before the Dunphy shooting, but the Mounties moved in only after he was detained by the RNC. He was charged with uttering threats but it was dropped soon after, at his first court appearance.

However, once inside his home, they discovered marijuana and charged Abbass and his pregnant partner with cultivation. Abbass said he used it for medical reasons but didn't have a licence at the time.

A judge gave him an absolute discharge.

WATCH | Andrew Abbass describes the toll the last eight years has had on his life:

Complaints against 2 RNC officers may soon go to a public hearing — nearly a decade after the alleged misconduct

8 hours ago

Duration 3:44

Featured VideoAndrew Abbass of Happy Valley-Goose Bay says he's looking forward to having his day at a public hearing for two police officers who he says have skirted accountability. CBC's Ariana Kelland spoke with Abbass at his home about the toll the process has taken on him.

Two years later, Abbass would get vindication in another courtroom. The Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal issued a ringing defence of political dissent, and found that a lower-court judge was wrong to dismiss Abbass's application to challenge his detention.

"If anger about political events and words of defiance to authorities are dealt with as signs of mental illness, a priori mental illness warranting involuntary committal, then our society is in a dangerous place," the three-judge panel wrote in a unanimous decision. It included Justice Malcolm Rowe, who has since been elevated to the Supreme Court of Canada.

"Such anger and defiance are characteristic of political dissent. As the history of authoritarian societies has taught us, confinement in a mental institution is a particularly insidious way of stifling dissent, directly and through intimidation."

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But Abbass said he wasn't aware of the backstory of how he came to be detained until an inquiry into Dunphy's death. It was a high-profile public spectacle that ended in Smyth's exoneration, exposing private correspondence along the way.

That included this series of BlackBerry messages, sent on April 7, 2015 — entered as evidence at the inquiry, and now subject to the upcoming public hearings:

Buckle: Arrested Abbass under MHCTA.

Smyth: Saw that! Nice.

Buckle: He's at hospital now.

Smyth: Loser.

Buckle: Yup.

"I'm not saying it's acceptable," Buckle told the inquiry at the time. "Sometimes in private conversations we use unacceptable language."

The inquiry also saw an email Buckle sent to all staff of the RNC urging caution when responding to calls about Abbass because he was active on Twitter in the wake of Dunphy's death. Buckle referenced Abbass's filing of complaints about the federal government's involvement in the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.

The email was forwarded from Smyth to another officer within the premier's security detail with the words: "same thing brother."

Abbass said the email was not warranted and he believes it laid the groundwork for his detention the following day.

He filed two complaints with the RNC public complaints commission after learning about the messages during the public inquiry.

Then chief Joe Boland dismissed Abbass's complaint in 2017. He said the text messages were private and did not support a conclusion that the officers were trying to harass Abbass.

Boland said the officers did not breach the RNC Act but echoed comments from Don Dunphy inquiry commissioner Leo Barry, who found that the messages between Buckle and Smyth demonstrate that the RNC does not have a culture of "compassion and respect for all citizens."

Abbass appealed.

Detention 'serious and wrongful deprivation' of rights: report

A second report by then RNC Deputy Chief Ed Oates, which was made public by Abbass himself, spelled out a history of complaints and troubling behaviour by an officer only referred to as Officer X. The officer is Buckle.

Oates called the detention a "serious and wrongful deprivation" of Abbass's liberties stemming from a police officer's abuse of authority.

Oates determined Buckle would have been fired had he not retired first. He said there was nothing that could be done because he was no longer with the force.

Again, Abbass appealed.

"You have an officer who abused his authority and I think there needs to be a clear message sent that that kind of thing is not acceptable and that kind of thing damages the public's faith in policing," said Abbass.

"If it's not punished properly then it sends the worst kind of message — that it's acceptable and people can get away with those kinds of things."

Abbass said the decision only intensified his resolve to push for a public hearing.

Augustine Bruce, interim commissioner of the RNC public complaints commission, reviewed the decisions by Oates and Boland, and in October 2022, it appeared Abbass would get his wish.

Bruce dismissed some elements of Abbass's complaints and referred others to a public hearing — a rare quasi-court proceeding to determine an officer's guilt or innocence in relation to their duties as a police officer.

A month after that ruling, Buckle's lawyer, Bern Coffey, filed an application arguing for judicial review. He said Bruce did not explicitly say which parts of Abbass's complaint would be subject to a hearing.

Coffey also said Bruce conflated the RNC's detention of Abbass under the Mental Health Care and Treatment Act with the appeal court's ruling that Abbass ought to have had his arguments over his detention heard in court.

Smyth, who is represented by Jerome Kennedy, has also applied for a judicial review as well as stay of the public hearing, until the review can be completed.

Like Coffey, Kennedy argued Bruce failed to outline which evidence the deputy chief and chief failed to consider in their investigations and subsequent reports, and that he didn't provide sufficient reasons for the public hearing.

A decision on the stay of proceedings is expected in several weeks.

Asked for additional comment by CBC News, Coffey referred to the judicial review before the Supreme Court and the public complaint before an adjudicator.

Kennedy did not respond.

The RNC Act says a retired officer can be dealt with in a public hearing as if they are still an active member of the force. However, it's unclear what discipline can be imposed.

Quicker investigations necessary, says prof

Temitope Oriola, a criminology professor at the University of Alberta, says internal cases against police officers should be completed within a year, in order to maintain public trust.

Oriola helped shape legislation on police oversight and was named special advisor to the Alberta government on its review of that province's police act in 2021.

"It is too long, it is too costly and it serves seemingly to frustrate individuals who would dare to try," said Oriola.

"Positive engagement cannot be there when it takes nearly a decade to hold a couple of police officers accountable."

Some of the delays in this case can be attributed to a number of other criminal and judicial matters that unfolded at the same time. The RNC Act says any investigation of a police officer must be paused while other court matters are heard first.

In this case, that would include a criminal investigation of Buckle by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team — the details of which were never made public, with charges never laid — and Abbass's matter before the provincial Court of Appeal.

The RNC Act is from 1992, and Oriola says police legislation needs to be updated with the times.

"The law must always be a living, breathing organism, one that grows and evolves as a society evolves," he said. "When that does not happen, society begins to play catch-up."

Newfoundland and Labrador is not alone in this, he said, but the onus is on elected leaders to ensure laws and policies are updated regularly.

Oriola began researching police misconduct under the lens of excessive force but said he believes the text messages between Buckle and Smyth should not be downplayed in the broader spectrum of possible wrongdoing.

"For better or worse, such communication, however seemingly private, is evident of perspective and orientation, the attitudes that people bring to their jobs and of course to their decision-making process," said Oriola.

"Why do we form such protective rings around the individuals who are soiling what seems to me … the reputation of police service?"

Oriola said the case highlights the inherent risks when the mental health act is applied in haste.

Abbass wants to see legislative change to the Mental Health Care and Treatment Act in relation to the checks and balances that are required for detainment.

Abbass says he's not satisfied with some aspects of the commission's probe and believes it could have gone further, or been sent back for another police investigation.

The text messages revealed at the inquiry were discovered on second look by widening the search dates. Abbass believes the time and date stamp was altered, although previous reports say there was no information to suggest wrongdoing.

He's also frustrated that he was never given a copy of the findings of the criminal investigation of Buckle, and whether charges were recommended to the province's director of public prosecutions. Charges were never laid.

For now, he said, public hearings — if and when they happen — are better than nothing at all.

"At least to get people asking questions about what's going on and why this culture of impunity exists in our police force, because it doesn't seem like it's helping the public's faith in policing in the province," Abbass said.

"The RNC as an organization structure, I don't have a lot of faith."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ariana Kelland

Investigative reporter

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's. She is working as a member of CBC's Atlantic Investigative Unit. Email: ariana.kelland@cbc.ca

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