Thunder Bay’s police service is "disappointed" and "discouraged" by a human rights complaint filed against it by three First Nations, according to its executive officer.

The complaint was filed after police dismissed concerns about racism within the police service. The concerns related to a "joke" e-mail mistakenly sent out by police on Sept. 1 as a news release.

It carried the headline: "Fresh Breath Killer Captured!!!" The news release referred to the murder of Adam Yellowhead, a First Nations man, whose body was found in an area frequented by people who use mouthwash to get drunk.

The release was immediately retracted and Thunder Bay police executive officer Chris Adams said police were working with First Nations leaders to address their concerns.

"We’re discouraged by the announcement of the complaint," Adams said.

"We were working with NAN (Nishnawbe Aski Nation) to try to find a suitable solution, understanding fully well that a media release that was sent out was inappropriate and probably caused a great deal of hurt to the Yellowhead family."

"Really, really hurt"

That pain was evident at a news conference Tuesday, announcing the human rights complaint. Yellowhead’s daughter fought back tears as she explained how she felt when she saw the news release about her father’s death.

"My family is really, really hurt by this comment," Francine Kwandibens said. "I hope out of this application that things can be done in the right way."

The complaint is about the way the police, and Thunder Bay’s mayor as a member of the police service board, reacted to concerns that the fake news release had racist overtones.

Shortly after the release was retracted, mayor Keith Hobbs told CBC News that media was "making something out of nothing" by reporting on it.

"That was a joke between detectives, it should have stayed in house," Hobbs said. "It has got nothing to do with race."

Set back in race-relations

The lawyer representing the First Nations in the case said it’s that kind of denial that forced First Nations to turn to the human rights tribunal for a fair hearing of their concerns about racism.

"Credible investigators don’t start by declaring the answer and then doing an investigation, which is precisely what has happened here," Julian Falconer said.

"So could this have played out differently? Absolutely, but it isn’t going to when the police leadership react in the kind of defensive, pre-determinative fashion they have here.

"Sadly I think Mayor Hobbs needs to go back and reconsider comments that have not in any way helped the situation."

Hobbs refused comment on the complaint.

But police have said the fact First Nations decided to file it is a step backward in race relations in the city.

"When something like this happens, of course it feels like a set-back," Adams said. "It does feel insulting too, to a lot of the hard work that is done by our members on behalf of every member of this community."