Couple say they witnessed hate crime, baffled by police response

The incident raises questions about what constitutes a hate crime in the eyes of police, and about police protocol and conduct after the fact while investigating.

Police did not lay hate crime charge, lawyer says that section of criminal code is complex

McMaster University students Danielle Wong and Brett Klassen say they witnessed what they believed to be a hate crime take place in McLaren Park in late July. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Danielle Wong and her partner Brett Klassen are looking for answers from Hamilton Police after they say they were assaulted after witnessing what they believed to be a hate crime against young black children. 

Early Sunday morning they were waiting for a bus near McLaren Park not far from an apartment building at 181 John Street. Wong says they saw two shirtless men, one of whom seemed intoxicated, and a woman who also seemed intoxicated, yelling racial slurs at a group of black children, part of a Somali family. 

The three people, who were white, "were yelling things like, 'All you Muslims get out of the country,' and 'We're going to rape your sisters,'" Klassen told CBC News. Wong says the trio also kept calling them "the n-word."

Klassen and Wong say they approached the group to ask them to stop.

Things escalated. Klassen says one of the men told them to "step back" or he would, "knock them out."

At this point, Wong says she walked down the street and called police. The woman in the park noticed, and ran off. The two men, however, Klassen says, punched him in the neck and stomach.

Wong tried to get in between them while on the phone with police dispatch, she says, and was punched in the left ear. Klassen shoved them, and they ran off.

What happened when the police arrived

Minutes later, the police arrived — but that didn't make the situation much better, the two say.

Klassen, who is the co-chair of the Beasley Neighbourhood association, says he told an officer he wanted what happened to be documented as a hate crime. "He looked away exasperated and said, 'There are so many things being said all over the place. I could be out here writing up people for saying things all night, but we don't arrest people for saying bad words.'"

Wong, a PhD candidate at McMaster University, says she expressed her displeasure with that explanation. "I said it was very sad that this wasn't considered a hate crime," she said. "[A] woman officer then told me, 'You need to lose the attitude.'"

He apologized for the unprofessionalism we encountered, and he said he would bring this up to his team, and I appreciated that.- Danielle Wong, about Hamilton police Sgt. David LeClair

"That made us feel the police were not on our side in this situation," Wong said.

In a response sent by email to the CBC on Tuesday, Hamilton police Staff Sgt. Maggie Schoen said "the investigation is a fluid and ongoing process, and will determine if the threshold has been reached for this incident to be classified as a hate crime."

Schoen said "Generally no single factor on its own is sufficient in making the determination of what constitutes a hate/bias motivated crime. Often it is a result of the gathering of a number of criteria that are needed to make that determination." 

Schoen added that an 18-year-old man matching the description given had been arrested after "the initial call for service" and that he was charged with with "failing to comply with his probation order." Schoen said that while the investigation continues there would be no further comment.

Hamilton lawyer Beth Bromberg told CBC News that racial slurs on their own would likely not constitute a hate crime. 

"It's obnoxious, terrible and horrible, but it doesn't rise to the level of a crime," she said.

The one caveat there, she says, is the group shouting, "We're going to rape your sisters." That portion does sound like it could rise to the level of threatening, she said. "I guess the police decided to exercise caution on that."

The night of the incident, the police offered to call EMS, but Wong and Klassen declined. The officers also asked if they wanted to pursue assault charges, but the two said they were unsure.

One officer then said they had picked up the two men down the street, and referred to one of those men as a "crackhead retard" who was "always getting picked up by police," Wong says.

The two say they felt disgusted by the officer's comments. 

Twitter spreads story quickly

In the end, they chose not to press assault charges — but not long after the police left, both Wong and Klassen tweeted about the experience.

At around 8:20 p.m. that night, Wong says, police called her and said they were in her building and "following up on the incident." Moments later, two officers were at her door.

Wong says she felt intimidated. She didn't understand why the police would just show up at her door instead of calling her to ask when she would be free to talk — considering she was a complainant, and not under investigation herself.

The two officers, she says, were Const. Chris Burke, who was one of the officers at the scene hours earlier, and Sgt. David LeClair, who was not originally at the scene.

LeClair said that police spokesperson Catherine Martin had contacted them about Wong's tweets, and wanted to "follow up about what was expressed," Wong said.

More questions than answers

Wong says that when the two officers were in her apartment, she asked for an explanation about what would be considered a hate crime. Burke, she says, gave her examples, but kept saying the word "n--ger" while explaining — something that made her very uncomfortable.

Sgt. LeClair asked if she would like Burke to leave, and she said yes. She then told him she found it unacceptable that he kept repeating a racial slur, even in that context.

"He apologized for the unprofessionalism we encountered, and he said he would bring this up to his team, and I appreciated that," she said.

Klassen, at this point, had shown up at Wong's apartment, because he saw that Wong had tweeted the police had come by. He says LeClair handed them a pamphlet for the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, which is an independent civilian oversight agency.

"He also said something to the effect of, 'I would prefer you didn't take this route,'" Klassen said.

The two officers left, but then later that night, LeClair called Klassen and asked if they could "send two officers over to take a statement," Klassen said.

Klassen said he didn't understand why the police would need a statement after they had given one at the scene of the incident, and wasn't told what this second statement would be used for.

"Really, I didn't feel safe around these (original attending) officers," Wong said.

adam.carter@cbc.ca

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story stated that "A list of questions about the incident and what happened afterwards wasn't answered." In fact, Hamilton Police had responded to the reporter by email before the time of publication but due to a technical error the response was not noticed until late Wednesday morning.
    Jul 27, 2016 1:35 PM ET

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Hamilton home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.