Black community responds to alleged police assault of Halifax woman

Click to play video 'N.S. Black community responds to alleged police assault of young mother' N.S. Black community responds to alleged police assault of young mother
Members of Nova Scotia's Black community say Santina Rao's incident with police is another example for the need of a new policing strategy to be implemented. – Jan 17, 2020

Less than two months after Halifax Regional Police issued a formal apology to Nova Scotia’s Black community over the prejudicial use of street checks, the province’s police watchdog is investigating an incident that left a woman with injuries after she was allegedly physically abused by officers in a Halifax Walmart.

“It can’t be this many people with the same story and there not be reality and realness to the whole thing,” said Lynn Jones, a well-known African Nova Scotian historian and community activist.

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

In the eyes of Jones and many other African Nova Scotian community members, Santina Rao’s experience is all too familiar and calls for a new strategy to review allegations of discrimination and systemic racism involving police.

“We’ve said it’s not working, the relationship between the Black community and police, and we need an actual formal strategy, a formal policing strategy, for the Black community, but unfortunately the police haven’t seen this as something that is critical to deal with right now,” Jones said.

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“In the meantime, these incidents are happening and we don’t even have a formal strategy of dealing with it.”
Lynn Jones is an African Nova Scotian activist. She says members of the Black community are always forced to defend their experiences of police inappropriateness. Alexa MacLean/Global Halifax

Rao says she was shopping at the Walmart on Mumford Road Wednesday afternoon when she was accused of “concealing items” while still in the store.

On Thursday, Rao told Global News she placed a bag underneath her children’s stroller and was putting items into it as she shopped.

According to Rao, she paid for all her items at the electronics section except for her produce, which had to be weighed. After paying for those items, then stopping at the toy section, Rao claims she was approached by Halifax police officers and Walmart staff, who claimed she was “concealing items.”

Click to play video 'Video of arrest on Quinpool Road generating waves on social media' Video of arrest on Quinpool Road generating waves on social media
Video of arrest on Quinpool Road generating waves on social media – Dec 5, 2019

Rao says she urged officers and staff to check her bag, but they declined and asked for her identification. When she declined, Rao said officers used “excessive force” to put her in handcuffs.

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The 23-year-old woman says the arrest left her with a broken wrist, a concussion and injuries to her neck and arms.

Rao alleges she was a victim of racial profiling.

In an email to Global News Friday, Halifax Regional Police spokesperson Const. John MacLeod said the matter has been turned over to Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team (SiRT), which investigates all allegations of police wrongdoing.

MacLeod said he can’t speak to specific cases, but confirmed that police attended the Walmart after receiving a report that a theft was in progress.

In an email to Global News, SiRT says it was made aware of the incident Thursday night.

“We began a preliminary review today to see whether the incident appears to be within our mandate,” said SiRT interim director Pat Curran in the email. “SiRT’s mandate includes incidents in which there is reason to believe the actions of a police officer may have resulted in serious injury to an affected person.

“If an incident appears to be within the mandate, SiRT conducts an investigation.”

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Social worker Robert Wright says police credibility is rightfully on the line based on evidence of systemic racism.

He references incidents like that of Olympic boxer Kirk Johnson, who won a discrimination case against Halifax Regional Police in 2003 for repeatedly being pulled over based on his race.

Wright also cites HRP street check data, obtained by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation through a freedom of information request, showing that Black males were the targets of disproportionate street checks.

Street checks have since been banned in Nova Scotia.

In Rao’s circumstance, Wright questions how the situation escalated to the point of having the woman carried out of Walmart in handcuffs with her children watching.

“You can’t be charged with shoplifting unless you have left a store with an item that you have not paid for,” Wright said. “What are the police doing approaching a woman while still inside the store? And even if she was stealing a head of lettuce, or lemons, or whatever — does the visuals that come from that scenario and the harm that was done to that woman, in front of that woman’s kids, is it warranted?”

Robert Wright is a social worker and says police credibility is on the line based on evidence of systemic racism. Alexa MacLean/Global Halifax

READ MORE: SiRT now investigating allegations of police assault against woman in Halifax Walmart

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Wright says the police incident on Quinpool Road, where a Black man was tasered after police say he physically confronted them after being issued a ticket for driving unsafely, should be investigated by the SiRT.

“In the case of the man tasered on Quinpool, I think that was a situation where because of the history of policing of the Black community and Black people feeling unjust treatment by police, that situation was escalated and it was racially escalated,” Wright said.

He says the case of Rao demonstrates a pattern of policing where the original call for a potentially criminal activity never actually gets charged.

In Rao’s case, Wright is referencing how officers accused Rao of “concealing items” but she was charged with assaulting an officer, causing a disturbance and resisting arrest — not shoplifting.

“When the original reason for the police to have been called is not among the charges, then it often seems to me that the creation of the disturbance was in response to the presence of police,” he said.