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SIU findings 'breaking my heart,' says friend of Olando Brown

Police association president says people should be wary of jumping to conclusions based on 30-second clip; Members 'were shaken, upset and seriously affected'

A woman who was with Olando Brown in his final hours, just before he died while in Barrie police custody, says the details outlined in a Special Investigations Unit (SIU) report are "unfathomable" to her and don't depict the 32-year-old man as she knew him.

Severena Storkson said Brown is being painted "in the worst way possible as just some downtown addict or drug dealer." 

"It's not who he was," she said this morning during a phone interview with BarrieToday from Mississauga. "He was a caring, honest person. He wasn't a scumbag. I feel like they're just bashing his name into the ground."

The SIU's report, released on Wednesday, determined no criminal charges would be laid against the city police officers who were involved in Brown's arrest in downtown Barrie on June 22, 2018. 

The cause of death, says the SIU report, was determined to be an airway obstruction that resulted after Brown pulled two drug-filled, "golf ball-sized" plastic bags from his rectal area and attempted to swallow them during a search at police headquarters on Sperling Drive.

Health Canada later determined the bags contained heroin, fentanyl, caffeine and the painkiller dimethylsulphone, although they did not contribute to Brown's death because the substances did not enter his bloodstream. 

Now that the SIU has closed its case, Storkson said she doesn't like how Brown is being portrayed. 

"It's really disturbing how they're making this a big thing all about drugs and everything all of a sudden, when there's really been no mention about that before," she said. "Now it's on the news and his 11-year-old daughter is seeing and hearing all of these awful things about her father. That's what's breaking my heart."

Brown's family could not be reached today for comment. 

Storkson, who believes there was a "cover-up," said the SIU report was "extremely frustrating" and "none of it means anything."

But it does mean something to Barrie Police Association president Tom Sinclair, who says the SIU's report makes it abundantly clear exactly what happened that day last summer and that the officers did their best to help Brown.

The SIU's report determined that the local officers "acted professionally and did their utmost to save Orlando Brown's life," Sinclair said in a statement provided to BarrieToday.

"Resulting from (Brown's) decisions and actions following his arrest, our members did all they could do to help," Sinclair added. "It was a unique situation for our members; we have not experienced this (type of) incident before."

SIU director Tony Loparco also noted in his report that the officers' actions were specifically aimed at saving Brown's life.  

Now that the officers have been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by the SIU, Sinclair said he still has concerns about the initial public reaction, as well as what occurred in the intervening months after Brown died and while the investigation was underway. 

"People on social media platforms suggested that the officers involved and their family members be found and do to them what was done to Mr. Brown," Sinclair said. "Those comments have had a profound effect on our members.

"Our members were shaken, upset and seriously affected by some of the bias and inflammatory reporting of comments made," he added. "At the outset, some notable figures made comments that were irresponsible (and) based on uninformed opinions."

Although some people continue to cast doubt on exactly what they think happened, Sinclair says many people in the community have shown support for the officers and their actions, which has helped instill confidence.

Brown, who had an outstanding arrest warrant for assault, had been placed in custody less than two hours before his death. He was tasered four times for an elapsed time of 21 seconds at the Five Points in downtown Barrie during a struggle with police, which was caught on video.

That video quickly went viral and became headline news. His death also led to rallies and protests involving the Black Lives Matter movement. There was also a vigil at the location where Brown was arrested, some of which still remains, albeit covered in a blanket of snow. 

Although it's standard procedure for police not to comment on investigations involving the SIU, Sinclair says the incident should act as a lesson. He said it was unfortunate to see officers vilified "based on a 30-second video clip recorded on a member of the public’s mobile device, without any context or understanding of the incident itself."

The union president says the "rashly shared" and "baseless narrative" resulted in threats to officers and their families. He also says it demonstrates how quickly such information can "diminish the established positive relationships between the police service and the community."

Following Brown's arrest around 2:30 p.m., he was examined by paramedics at the police station and found to be in good health. They removed the taser probes from his shoulder and left the building. 

Brown was then taken to another room with two officers for a strip search. To protect his privacy, the SIU says the video equipment was disabled, which is in compliance with Barrie police policy for such searches, while the audio continued to record.

However, Storkson called the lack of video evidence at such a crucial time "a very good coincidence."

The SIU says Brown "suddenly" removed objects from his rectal area and placed them in his mouth. The officers tried to remove them, but were unsuccessful. 

Brown soon went into medical distress. Officers performed CPR and the paramedics, who were still in the parking lot, were called back inside.

Brown was found without vital signs and attempts were made to save his life. He was rushed to hospital where two balloons were removed from his throat. After some time spent trying to resuscitate him, Brown was pronounced dead.

The pathologist concluded Brown choked to death due to the objects lodged in his airway.

Following Brown's death, Sinclair said the officers' well-being was a top priority for the association.

"We supported their actions, because we knew they conducted themselves appropriately and we continued to support them until this report has now confirmed our earlier conclusions," he said.

"The officers went from investigative and enforcement measures immediately to life-saving measures once they realized what Mr. Brown had done."

Sinclair noted the officers tried to retrieve what Brown tried to swallow, attempted the Heimlich manoeuvre, applied CPR and used a defibrillator.

"Paramedics couldn’t dislodge and assist with his breathing, either," he said, adding it wasn't until further intervention at the hospital that the baggies were removed. 

Ultimately, it was too late. 

The mere thought of Brown's death still brings Storkson to tears. 

"There's been nights I can't sleep and have to call my friends at three in the morning, because I can't deal with it," she said. "It's traumatizing. I moved out of Barrie because I can't stand being there anymore."

Storkson said Brown was always funny and she hopes to remember the good times and laughs they shared.

Once the weather turns nice again, she and some friends plan to go to Hooters, sit in their usual spot and reminisce. 

"That was one of my last memories of him," she said.