Police chief calls woman's arrest at a Halifax Walmart 'unfortunate'
Santina Rao says she was assaulted by police when they arrested her at the Mumford Road Walmart last week
Halifax's police chief says he's referred the "disappointing" case of a 23-year-old woman who was arrested while shopping at a Halifax Walmart last week to the province's police watchdog, which is now deciding whether it will launch an investigation.
Santina Rao spoke publicly about her experiences to several media outlets last week and said she was approached by police officers while shopping with her two young children inside the Mumford Road store on Jan. 15. She said police believed she was concealing items and that when she became upset they cuffed her without explaining why she was being arrested.
A video posted by the Halifax Examiner to YouTube shows part of the altercation, including Rao swearing at a police officer to get off of her before one officer physically brought her to the ground and they struggled. Two officers appeared to restrain Rao while there were staff members in the background.
Calling it racial profiling, Rao wrote on Facebook that she had attempted to show her receipts and told police they could search her stroller. She said the encounter broke her wrist, gave her a concussion and left her with bruising around her eyes, arms and back. She also said she scratched one of the officers.
Police charged her with causing a disturbance, assaulting a peace officer and resisting arrest. They sent out a release the following day stating a woman "became verbally abusive and was behaving aggressively" when they tried to arrest her. Rao is not facing any theft-related charges.
Rao has no previous criminal record. CBC has contacted for Rao for comment, but hasn't heard back yet.
"Certainly anything like this happens, it's disappointing. We take all of these matters very seriously," said police Chief Dan Kinsella while speaking to reporters after a meeting of the board of police commissioners Monday afternoon.
Pat Curran, the interim director of SIRT, said they're determining whether the incident fits within the agency's mandate. He said they haven't decided if there will be an investigation.
Meanwhile, Kinsella said he's waiting until SIRT makes a decision to take any further action. He said the two officers involved are still working and continuing with their regular duties.
He wouldn't comment on whether the officers responded appropriately after Walmart called asking for assistance with an alleged theft investigation.
"Whenever an incident like this occurs, it is unfortunate," he said. "We need to wait, we need to respect the process, we need to make an informed decision based on the appropriate investigation."
A manager at the Mumford Road Walmart declined an interview and said he couldn't comment since it was a police investigation. He referred questions to the company's headquarters in Ontario. A statement from Felicia Feder, manager of Walmart Canada's corporate affairs, said all inquires would have to be directed to police.
Earlier at the police commission meeting, activist El Jones, who also wrote about Rao's arrest for the Halifax Examiner, addressed the case during a presentation about the force's budget and said it reflects the police force's poor relationship with Halifax's black community.
"As a black woman, I cannot in good conscience stand before you without advocating for this poor black woman, who because she is poor, is racially profiled in a Walmart while we talk about giving [$700,000] more to the police force who beat her," she said.
Jones said police asking for Rao's ID was effectively a street check even though it happened in a store.
"When she was questioned about her address, she asked the police why they needed this information. We are being told repeatedly we have the right to refuse a street check and if we are asked to show our information we can refuse, but we see here the consequence is what happened to Santina Rao," Jones said.
Last October, Nova Scotia's justice minister announced he would permanently ban street checks after a legal opinion co-authored by a former top judge found the Halifax police practice, which disproportionately targeted black males, is illegal.
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With files from Pam Berman