Thunder Bay·Audio

Thunder Bay police 'roughed me up', First Nations man says

A First Nations man says he was tackled, kneed in the head and insulted with racial slurs by Thunder Bay police officers after he refused to speak to them.

Elijah Sugarhead says arrest for 'no reason' led to broken glasses, blood and bruises

Elijah Sugarhead, 29, says Thunder Bay police caused the bruises on his face, broke his glasses and nearly broke his nose. (Jody Porter/CBC)
A First Nations man says he was injured by police during the course of what he calls an unnecessary arrest last month. We'll hear his story.
A First Nations man says he was tackled, kneed in the head and insulted with racial slurs by Thunder Bay police officers after he refused to speak to them.

Elijah Sugarhead said he left a bar on the city's south side around 2:30 a.m. on July 26 and was walking on St. Paul Street when two officers in an unmarked police car pulled up beside him and asked him to stop.

The 29-year-old, originally from Nibinamik First Nation, said there was no reason for police to approach him and he was immediately suspicious about racial profiling.

"I said 'no. Is it because I'm Native?'" Sugarhead said. Then an officer got out of the car and "I freaked out and ran towards the public."

Sugarhead said he wanted to run to a place where there were people who would witness the interaction, and also where there was grass, instead of pavement, to fall on in case things turned violent.

"I found a soft ground place and that's where I stopped and they just put me down and roughed me up," he said. "They were aiming for my head mainly. One of the officer's knees were at the back of my head and I was hurt."

Running common response

Running from police is very common response, according to a criminologist who specializes in the policing of minority communities.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is a criminologist and professor at Indiana University who studies race, inequality, justice and policing. (Akwasi Owusu-Bempah/Twitter)

The instinct to flee is related to something called "stereotype threat", Indiana University professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah said.

People of colour, particularly blacks and aboriginals know that they are stereotyped as criminals, especially by police, he said.

"So, an officer is approaching me. I know that he might be targeting me because he thinks I'm a criminal. I get nervous and then, exactly like this situation, I run away, confirming the officer's suspicion that there's something wrong there even though there's nothing wrong," Owusu-Bempah said.

The onus is on police to be sensitive to the stereotypes and the position of the people they are dealing with, he said.

'Scared for my life'

Sugarhead said his ordeal didn't end on the street.

He said he was cuffed behind the back and put in the police car where he said he was subject to racial slurs, told to go back to the rez and one officer said he wished Sugarhead was dead.

"I'm scared for my life because I don't know what they'll do to me," Sugarhead said. 

What they did, according to Sugarhead, is speed down Memorial Avenue, slamming on the brakes, causing Sugarhead's face to smash into the metal cage in the back of the car.

"I didn't want to black out because I was scared," he said. "I wanted to stay alive, I didn't want to lose consciousness."

Thunder Bay police confirm that Sugarhead was arrested on July 26 for public intoxication and taken to the police station. He was released "when sober with a provincial offences ticket."

"If he feels he has a complaint, there is an established procedure that he can follow, which is his right," police spokesperson Julie Tilbury said in an email to CBC News. "We cannot comment beyond that."

Sugarhead said he is awaiting legal advice before pursuing a formal complaint.

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