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Halifax mother alleges she was racially profiled at store, ‘aggressively punched’ by police officer

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WATCH: A Halifax mother says she was physically assaulted by Halifax police after being falsely accused of shoplifting, and she says she was targeted because of her colour. Alex MacLean reports – Jan 16, 2020

A 23-year-old mother of two is recovering from injuries she says were caused by Halifax Regional Police (HRP) officers “tackling” her to the ground and one officer “punching” her in the face.

Santina Rao was shopping at Walmart on Mumford Road in Halifax on Wednesday afternoon when she alleges she was racially profiled and accused of “concealing items” while still shopping in the store.

Rao says she had her three-year-old daughter and one-year-old son with her. According to Rao, she had placed a bag underneath her children’s stroller and was putting items into it as she shopped.

Rao says all of the items were visible as she moved through the store. After picking up an item in the electronics section, she says she asked to pay for her groceries there. According to Rao, the clerk told her she could pay for all of her items except her produce because it had to be weighed.

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Rao says she complied, took her receipt and decided to purchase a toy before heading to the front of the store to finish her shopping.

While she was in the toy section, Rao says she was approached by police officers and store staff.

“All of a sudden, I get approached by two HRP officers and three clerks from the store,” she said. “Right off the bat, police officers. They said they had probable cause to believe that I was concealing items.”

READ MORE: Complaint filed in relation to Quinpool Road arrest that went viral on social media

Caught off guard, Rao says she immediately felt like she was being racially profiled and told officers she had nothing to hide.

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“You can check the receipts in my bags here, you can look under my stroller, you can look in my purse, you can look in my baby bag,” Rao said. “I have produce on me underneath the stroller that I’m going to pay for, I was letting my daughter pick out a toy. We’re going to go to the front of the store and pay for it, if you want to come with us and escort me there to make sure I pay for my items, even though it’s totally unnecessary.”

Rao alleges that instead of checking her items, one of the officers asked for her identification and began to question her. She says she became frustrated.

READ MORE: Halifax police apologize to Black community for street checks

“You’re accusing me of potentially stealing before I even tried to leave the store and you’re asking me for my ID and where I live? For what reason?” Rao said.

According to Rao, the officer told her she was becoming aggressive and called more officers to the scene.

“I’m traumatized,” Rao said. “I’m standing there with my kids. My three-year-old daughter is in my hand, my son’s asleep in the stroller because he just had a bottle, and there’s five men standing around me, pointing their fingers at me, accusing me of concealing something, but I hadn’t even left the store. I was still actively shopping.”

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Rao claims that despite repeatedly telling the officers to check her bags, they did not do so. She says the officer told her that police could arrest her if she didn’t “calm down.”

That’s when Rao alleges excessive force was used to try to put her in handcuffs.

READ MORE: Police open to reviewing historic cases of criminalization arising from street checks

“I pulled away and said, ‘No, you’re not [arresting me],’ and he grabbed me again forcefully by my arm and pulled me towards him, to pull my arm back and put me in cuffs. So, I took my free right hand and pushed him in his face and scratched him away,” she said.

Rao says she was in a traumatic state and felt trapped and as though nobody was listening to her.

“I’m in flight-or-fight mode at that moment in time. My kids are standing there, my daughter was holding my hand before I had lifted it up to push him away,” she said.

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Rao alleges she was punched and tackled to the ground. She says that instead of being taken to hospital or treated by paramedics, she was taken straight to the police station and put into a cell until she was released later that evening.

Rao has been charged with assaulting a peace officer, causing a disturbance and resisting arrest. She has not been charged with theft.

READ MORE: Montreal police arrest 12 minors as Black Friday protests descend on downtown Montreal

Rao says she has to appear in court in February and is seeking legal counsel to fight the charges.

In response to Rao’s social media post about the incident, Halifax Regional Police issued a statement on Thursday in relation to the arrest.

“Halifax Regional Police is aware of concerns expressed by a woman who was arrested…We take any allegation of this nature very seriously and we are currently looking into the matter closely,” HRP said.

Police said they are not in a position to discuss specifics at this time but confirmed that at approximately 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, they received a report of a theft in progress at Mumford’s Walmart in Halifax.

“Officers approached a woman who was believed to have concealed items. She became verbally abusive and was behaving aggressively,” police said. “The officers then attempted to place the woman under arrest for causing a disturbance. She resisted and assaulted one of the officers.”

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According to police, the officer was taken to hospital for treatment and later released.

Rao claims she wasn’t treated for her injuries and is seeking medical attention on her own.

Global News reached out to the Walmart on Mumford Road for comment on the incident but did not receive a response.

Rao said she’ll be suing HRP for the arrest as well as racial profiling.

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In response to the incident, well-known activist and spoken-word poet El Jones has organized a protest at Mumford terminal Walmart at 5 p.m. on Thursday, which she announced on social media, “to protest the police brutality and racial profiling” of Rao.

“We have to make a stand against this brutality and racism,” said Jones in a Facebook post. “Let Walmart know they cannot treat Black women this way.”

Women’s Wellness Within (WWW), a registered non-profit organization that provides doula support, education and advocacy for criminalized women and trans/nonbinary individuals, has also requested an immediate meeting with Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella after learning about the incident.

“Racism and violence against women will not be tolerated. For several years now, Women’s Wellness Within has sought to advise Halifax Regional Police to appropriately treat women and nonbinary people with young children. Change is needed now,” the organization said in a written release.