Nearly a year after an Ontario judge called his assault on a young Black man a “shocking violation,” a Toronto police constable pleaded guilty to professional misconduct at a disciplinary tribunal Wednesday.
Const. Joseph Dropuljic — an officer with nearly 20 years on the force — was given a conditional discharge for assault last August over the November 2015 incident in North York that left Kimani Wilson, then 23, with minor injuries, distrust in police and lingering psychological issues, according to an agreed statement of facts and the judge’s ruling.
Dropuljic, 52, pleaded guilty to the criminal charge last year and, this week, to professional misconduct under Ontario’s Police Services Act.
In his submissions on Dropuljic’s penalty this week, police prosecutor Jerry Leung called the assault “serious misconduct” that has impacted the reputation of the Toronto police. In a joint submission with Gary Clewley, Dropuljic’s lawyer, Leung asked the hearing officer to dock Dropuljic nine days’ pay.
The officer’s encounter with Wilson first drew public attention in August 2017, when Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit — which probes deaths and injuries involving police — charged Dropuljic with assault. In a press conference one day later, Wilson said he was “haunted” by the incident, which “constantly plays over again in my mind.”
“It’s a feeling you can’t explain, I would say helplessness,” he told reporters.
The assault stemmed from a 911 call reporting gunshots in the area of Gracefield Ave. in North York. Police searched nearby homes, parks and schools looking for shell casings or suspicious people or cars, but found nothing.
Acting on what Ontario Court Justice Paul Robertson called “entirely a hunch,” Dropuljic drove 1.4 kilometres west of the original 911 call to a housing co-op at 300 Queens Dr. that was “not unfamiliar to police.”
There, Dropuljic found a taxi waiting out front, instructed the driver not to drive off and called for backup. Wilson later came out of the building and entered the cab wearing “hooded loose clothing,” holding his hands near his waist, according to the agreed statement of facts filed at the police tribunal Wednesday.
Dropuljic approached the car and asked Wilson for his identification and to show his hands. According to the agreed statement of facts, Wilson was “not co-operative about showing his hands” and told Dropuljic he did not have any identification on him.
Dropuljic then told Wilson he was under arrest for possession of a weapon and ordered him to get out of the car. When Wilson refused, Dropuljic “physically pulled” Wilson from the rear seat onto the pavement, according to court documents.
Wilson “landed face down on the ground.” Dropuljic then handcuffed him and put him in a headlock in order to search him for a weapon, which he did not have. Wilson’s mother later brought his identification, and he was released unconditionally.
Wilson initially refused medical assistance but was later taken to hospital where he was treated for a small abrasion to his face and left knee, according to the August 2018 agreed statement of facts.
In his reasons for sentencing, Robertson said he couldn’t understand why Dropuljic zeroed in on Wilson — there was nothing in the court materials that would identify him as a suspect, the judge noted. The officer had no grounds to arrest him for possessing a weapon or, “in my view, even to stop him on the basis of an investigative detention for such an offence.”
Dropuljic lacked sufficient grounds for the arrest and therefore the act of pulling of him out of the taxi constituted an assault, according to the August 2018 agreed statement of facts.
“Assault by a police officer shakes the confidence the public has in the police,” Robertson said in his decision. “The enormous effort of the Toronto Police Service to build bridges, particularly those with communities where, due to high crime rates, police presence is legitimately intense, can be easily eroded when an officer commits a criminal offence, and particularly so where the victim is a member of one of those communities.”
Robertson noted, however, that Dropuljic’s actions were a “complete contradiction to what otherwise appears to be an exemplary record” with the police, including “numerous” accolades by superiors for outstanding police work, some of which involved gun seizures. Dropuljic had no prior disciplinary record.
The judge gave Dropuljic a conditional discharge and sentenced him to 12 months of probation and 50 hours of community service.
In submissions before disciplinary hearing officer Supt. Riyaz Hussein on Wednesday, Clewley said Dropuljic made a mistake he regrets — “it’s unfortunate but it’s a one-off,” he said.
Clewley cited the Crown prosecutor on the criminal case, who acknowledged that Dropuljic had made an error but was an “otherwise professional and good officer and … responsible citizen.”
Leung, the police prosecutor in the disciplinary hearing, said a nine-day penalty struck the right balance of holding Dropuljic accountable while acknowledging his earlier guilty plea.
“The public must be reassured that officers are being held responsible,” Leung said.
When the SIU charged Dropuljic in August 2017, it was the second case in just over a month in which the provincial watchdog had charged a Toronto officer with assault despite police failing to notify it about the man’s injuries. Police services are required to call in the SIU in cases where the watchdog’s mandate could reasonably be invoked, including serious injuries.
In Wilson’s case, the incident did not come to light until months after the fact, when he lodged a complaint with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director alleging police brutality.
Asked why Toronto police did not contact the SIU immediately after the incident with Wilson, a Toronto police spokesperson said there was no indication of serious injury at the time of the incident.
“Once we received information from the OIPRD, the SIU was notified,” Meaghan Gray told the Star in November.
Hussein, the Toronto police disciplinary hearing officer, said he will rule on Dropuljic’s penalty at a later date.
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis