Toronto officer found not guilty of assault on Black TTC rider

A Toronto police detective seen on bus surveillance video grabbing and appearing to hold a Black TTC rider by the neck for about 30 seconds in a 2019 incident has been found not guilty of assault.

Justice Apple Newton-Smith of the Ontario Court of Justice rejected the testimony of Crown witness Chase Richards that he was choked and set upon without warning by Detective Christopher Hutchings, saying that the testimony of the officer and the bus driver better matched the video that was played at trial.

"I understand how a member of the public would be shocked in viewing the video as I initially was. But that person would not be apprised of the facts and circumstances. Police use of force is never pretty and it is difficult to watch. But it is sometimes necessary,” said Justice Newton-Smith in court Thursday.

“Having now heard all of the evidence I would be shocked if he did not react quickly and with force. I find Officer Hutchings not guilty,” she said.

Richards, who said he works as a labourer now and has three children, said in a phone interview that he doesn’t understand how this trial ended this way.

“It hurts. It’s disturbing. It shows me that nothing has changed, even with the clear view of the camera. It was clear as day,” he said.

The Toronto Police Service said in a statement that Hutchings will remain suspended with pay, and his partner will still have restricted duties, while they face a charge of obstruction of justice related to this case.

“Notwithstanding the finding of not guilty, the Service nevertheless has concerns with respect to the level of professionalism demonstrated during this incident,” the statement said.

In the judgement, which Justice Newton-Smith read in about two hours, she illustrated how the divergent testimony of Richards, Hutchings and the bus driver left her convinced the case hinged on who was more credible.

Richards had testified that he had been singled out by the TTC bus driver in December 2019 for not paying his fare. Richards said when he challenged that fact, the bus driver insulted his body odour, pulled the bus over and called the police.

Richards testified that when Hutchings and his partner Detective Jason Tanoye arrived, Hutchings asked, “Is this the motherf****** who is causing the problem?” He responded, “I’m not a motherf***** because I paid the fare,” and said the officer rushed to choke him, pushing him up against the bus and then on the floor of the bus before resting his foot on his back.

Richards testified he believed the incident escalated because he is a Black man. A video clearly shows Richards paying with his presto card as he boards the back door of the bus.

But the bus driver testified the issue was never about fare payment — it was about his attempt to tell Richards that passengers aren’t allowed to board at the back door on that route. He testified that when he told that to Richards, he became angry and refused to step behind a white line painted on the floor of the bus, so he called the police.

Hutchings testified that he was on a callback shift that night and his first response was to the bus. He testified he found Richards in front of that white line that passengers are meant to stay behind, was pointed to Richards by the driver, and determined that Richards had put a bus out of service and was arrestable because he was in the midst of causing mischief.

Hutchings testified he did ask Richards to step back, concerned for the bus driver's safety. When Richards didn’t comply he used force, pushing him, but did not use a chokehold.

Justice Newton-Smith said in the judgment she rejected evidence from Richards on the grounds that the video shows him having an argument with the bus driver in front of that white line and refusing to step behind it.

She said it also shows that when the detective boards the bus, he can be seen giving repeated orders to Richards before using force. She relied on expert evidence that if a man is being choked, he would reflexively attempt to grab his neck and be unable to talk — something the video does not show, concluding that Hutchings did not use a chokehold.

“Mr. Richards’ tone, demeanour and level of aggression led Det. Hutchings to believe that Mr. Richards was assaultive,” Justice Newton-Smith wrote. “I accept that Officer Hutchings had probable grounds to arrest Richards at this time.”

In contrast, Richards is seen on the video smiling and swearing, which Justice Newton-Smith said was consistent with “provocative” behaviour and a “combative and belligerent attitude”.

Richards had testified that it was a “painful” smile.

As for the allegation that it was Richards’ race that precipitated the incident, Justice Newton-Smith said she accepts that is what he believes.

“Racism is an ugly fact in our society,” she said. “The documented history of the relations between police and a racialized community would have an impact on the perceptions of the accused.”

But she said the passengers on the bus were a multicultural group and Richards was not selected by Hutchings, but by the bus driver.

“The comment that he smelled was inappropriate… but it was not racist,” said Newton-Smith, adding it was in the context of the driver trying to get Richards to step away. “Richards was angry, aggressive, and refusing to comply with commands. His fear was reasonable in the circumstances,” she said.

Peter Brauti, who represented Hutchings, told CTV News that he believes racism must be addressed — but said arguments about racism advanced when the facts don’t support them undermine progress.

“This was not one of those cases,” he said.

Nigel Barriffe with the group the Urban Alliance for Race Relations said the judge’s analysis was missing historical context.

“Black people in this city are constantly surveilled in this city,” he said. “For the judge to turn a blind eye to that historical context, to understand that when this police officer came on the bus, he saw the young Black man as a threat. If he was a young blond woman, or an old white lady, he would never have that same response.”

The decision was read during a virtual hearing and neither Hutchings nor Richards appeared to be present.

The judge also pointed out that Richards had attempted to complain about his treatment to the TTC, which “went nowhere” and then contacted the City of Toronto, which provided him a $39,000 payout.

When the trial began and Richards’ testimony attracted significant media coverage, she said he sent an e-mail looking for more money to a lawyer who happened to be part of Hutchings’ defense team.

When asked about this, Richards testified that he was attempting to get more money, but that “it was not about the money.”