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Halifax Regional Police must conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the violent arrest of a young black woman at a Halifax Walmart recently, says a veteran black police officer from Nova Scotia.
“It must be a timely, accurate investigation and then you tell the truth to the people, no matter who it helps or who it hurts," said Calvin Lawrence, a former police officer in Halifax and later the RCMP. He filed a human rights complaint against the RCMP and was awarded a settlement. His book Black Cop describes his 36-year career in policing and the racism he experienced.
Speaking from his Ottawa home Friday, Lawrence said he has serious concerns about the events leading up to Santina Rao’s arrest in front of her two young children at the Mumford Road Walmart outlet on Wednesday afternoon.
According to Rao, she was the subject of racial profiling and was provoked into an altercation with several Halifax Regional Police officers who arrived at the store and falsely accused her of attempting to shoplift. A widely shared video of her arrest shows a brief scuffle between Rao and an officer before she’s thrown to the ground and arrested. She’s then swarmed by three police officers while Walmart employees witness the incident.
The video was akin to his own experiences and many he’s witnessed throughout his life, he said. Lawrence said he's become numb to what he calls systemic and institutionalized racist behaviour in Nova Scotia and throughout Canada.
“I’ve certainly become numb to it now. I grew up in Halifax, ran the streets of Halifax, dealt with police as a teenager, became a Halifax police officer.
"It’s just another day of racial conflict in Halifax. I approach this with a purely non-emotional response.”
But that doesn’t make it acceptable, said Lawrence. He acknowledges that Rao may have provoked the police to use force. Rao said she pushed the arresting officer away, scratching his face after he grabbed her arm without warning. She said she became angry and yelled at the officers after she showed them her unpaid merchandise stored in an open compartment of her son’s stroller but they wouldn’t leave her alone.
The former officer believes Rao, who suffered serious injuries, including a broken wrist and a concussion, during her arrest, had a right to be angry. Rao was never charged with theft. Lawrence wonders why the officers didn’t wait until she left the store before accusing her of theft. Failing that he also questions whether the officers attempted to de-escalate the situation, a basic requirement of any officer in that situation, he said.
“The role of the police is to get voluntary compliance through verbal intervention. The onus is on the police to de-escalate the situation. That’s the critical question here. My question would be did they try to de-escalate the situation? Why is she not being charged with theft if that’s what the call is about?"
Terry Coleman, a former Moose Jaw police chief and expert in non-physical intervention, watched the video of Rao’s arrest and said his initial response is that the incident could have been handled better by both store security and the police.
Coleman also said without having all the facts of the case he couldn’t make a completely informed opinion. But like Lawrence, he said it was unusual that Rao wasn’t confronted by security after leaving the store.
"The approach to situations such as this is for a police officer to remain calm and engage the person in conversation. That is, avoid escalating a situation such that it becomes out of control. Key to confrontations is that the police officer takes action to avoid escalation and if it escalates to try to de-escalate. Thus, avoiding unnecessary physical force."
The Chronicle Herald submitted a request on Friday afternoon to interview HRP chief Dan Kinsella but did not receive a reply. On Thursday the force issued a statement in response to the incident saying it was taking Rao's accusations of racial profiling seriously and were "looking into the matter closely.”
The release said officers approached a woman who was believed to have concealed items and that she became verbally abusive and aggressive. The officers then attempted to place the woman under arrest for causing a disturbance.
The statement said the woman resisted arrest and assaulted one of the officers. Rao was charged with resisting arrest, disturbing the peace and assaulting a police officer. The officer was taken to hospital for treatment and later released.
In response to the incident, black activist El Jones led a protest in front of the Mumford Walmart location on Friday.
The Herald contacted Walmart’s head office in Toronto to find out whether it was investigating the incident. Company spokeswoman Felicia Fefer replied with an email that didn’t address the question, saying inquiries should be directed to HRP.
"We are aware the police arrested a woman at our Halifax store on Wednesday afternoon," said the statement. "It is our understanding the police are investigating the matter and any inquiries you have should be directed to the police."