Toronto·SYSTEMIC CHANGE

Student alleges racial profiling after she says police accused her of stealing her own car

Taylina Rhoden, a 20-year-old film student at Ryerson University, says she's now afraid of police officers after she says one grabbed her and accused her of auto theft, as she was brushing snow off her car in February. Black Lives Matter Canada says one year after George Floyd's murder, their calls for defunding the police have not been answered.

Year after George Floyd's murder, calls for police reform continue

Taylina Rhoden, a 20-year-old film student at Ryerson University, says she's now afraid of police officers after one grabbed her and accused her of auto theft, as she was brushing snow off her own car in February. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

This story is part of a CBC News exploration of systemic racism, including anti-Black racism, and the promises for change made last summer.  

Taylina Rhoden says she "never in a million years" thought she'd be grabbed by a police officer or accused of doing something illegal. And she definitely wasn't expecting it the afternoon of Feb. 17, 2021, when she was brushing snow off her car and getting ready to pick up a few groceries with her roommate.

"An officer put down his window and he said 'What are you doing over there by that car?' And I said 'It's my car, I'm brushing snow off of it,'" Rhoden recalls.

The Ryerson University film student said the Toronto police officer got out of his car and asked her to talk. Rhoden says she was caught off guard and backed away, asked what he wanted to talk about and told him she didn't have to speak with him.

"As I was walking away from him, he grabbed me by my arm and that's when I started to get really scared because you've been seeing all these things on the news and I've never been physically apprehended by anybody, let alone a police officer," she said.

Rhoden says the officer threatened to charge her with auto theft.

"I said 'This is my car. This is my registration. Just let go of me and I can show you the paperwork.' He wouldn't let go. I tried to loosen my grip and he grabbed me back harder and started shaking me and pulling me," she said.

At this point, she said she was crying and screaming for help. She says the officer was also not wearing a mask.

The Toronto Police Service says it is committed to being transparent and to building trust in the community through such measures as implementing anti-Black racism training and initiatives to address systemic racism.

But one year after George Floyd's murder and several protests in Toronto calling for change in policing, advocates say incidents such as this one demonstrate that there is still a lot of work to be done. Black Lives Matter Canada continues to call for a portion of the police budget to be reallocated to community initiatives. 

Rhoden says it wasn't until her landlord came out of the building, and identified her as his tenant, that the officer moved on.

"If my white landlord wasn't there to identify who I was, what would have happened?"

Rhoden says she called police after the incident to report the officer and says she didn't get a proper follow up until 12 hours later. In a meeting with Toronto police after the fact, she says an officer informed her that there were reports of auto thefts in the area.

Rhoden has also filed a complaint with The Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) and secured legal representation. 

She feels she was stopped because of her race.

"You don't have to be doing anything. You can just be outside existing and you get targeted."

'This has to be addressed,' lawyer says

Knia Singh, principal lawyer at Ma'at Legal Services who is representing Rhoden, says incidents like this have been brought to his attention more frequently over the last few years as people use cameras on their cell phones to film police activity.

"Somebody brushing snow off their car shouldn't be accused of auto theft," he said.

Singh added it could have been a simple question and answer interaction, and Rhoden should have been given a chance to show the officer her licence and registration when she offered it. Instead, he says, her rights were violated.

Knia Singh is the principal lawyer at Ma'at Legal Services and is representing Rhoden. He's also the co chair of the 'Know Your Rights Committee;' an initiative to educate the public about their rights during interactions with police. (Talia Ricci/CBC News)

"What is important is these matters are dealt with right. And there may be many of these across the city, and unfortunately, most citizens don't have the resources to find counsel to help them. They may brush it off, or they may not have a witness," he said.

Singh wants to see more discipline for police officers who abuse their power and says that discipline should go beyond a warning or a docking of pay.

"This has to be addressed. We know the tensions across North America," he said.

"I see change, but I think there's still a lot of work to be done."

Black Lives Matter Canada calls for cut to police budget

Syrus Marcus Ware, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada, says people are talking about policing more than they ever have and he's seeing more stories such as this one come to light.

"We're hearing about the every day ways the police cross the line," he said.

 "It doesn't always end in a fatality. Sometimes it ends in an assault, or other kinds of violence."

A summer of protests in 2020 called on the city to reallocate funds from the police budget into the community — housing, community centres and youth programs. Ware says those demands aren't being met. 

"We're still waiting for a 50 per cent reduction of the police budget to reinvest into the communities. That's something we're holding firm on."

Ware says what happened to Rhoden was "outrageous."

"We should be able to go out into the street, drive in our cars. We should be able to live in public space without fear of terrorizing from the police," he said.

"Our goals are rooted in the idea that we can do better than we are doing now."

Toronto police says it's taking steps to deliver fair policing

Toronto police said it would be inappropriate for the service to comment on the incident because a complaint has been filed with the OIPRD.

In a separate statement requested by CBC News on efforts over the last year to respond to calls for change, the service said: "As part of our commitment to deliver fair and non-discriminatory policing in Toronto, Our Equity, Inclusion and Human Rights Unit is implementing our Race-Based Data Collection Strategy, our Police and Community Engagement Review Committee helped us implement the Know Your Rights video campaign to educate the public about their rights during interactions with police, we have implemented anti-Black racism training, and we have introduced body worn cameras as part of our ongoing commitment to build transparency and public trust."

The statement says Toronto Police Chief James Ramer has committed to accelerating the service's response to the 81 recommendations on police reform identified by its board, which includes "a commitment to learning and continuing to address the harmful impacts of systemic racism."

Rhoden says incident was humiliating 

Rhoden and her lawyer say an officer working on her complaint came to her home unannounced on May 15, despite knowing she has legal representation. She said the visit came as a deadline imposed by the OIPRD was approaching to wrap up the case. But Rhoden refused to admit anything was resolved.

While three months have passed since the initial incident, the 20-year-old says the experience remains with her. She says she's now afraid of police officers and didn't leave her house a few days after it happened.

She says the service has tried setting up a meeting with her and the officer, but she isn't comfortable seeing him in person. 

"When I was screaming, he even looked at me and was like 'I don't care how much you scream, you can scream all you want.' It just felt like he didn't care what happened to me," she said. "Sometimes I still see his face in nightmares."

Rhoden says she shared her story with friends and family and on social media, and received many supportive responses including from Black Torontonians sharing experiences of their own.

Reflecting on that day in February, she describes it as terrifying, isolating and humiliating. 

"It didn't feel like he was following protocol," she said. "It felt personal."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Talia Ricci is a CBC reporter based in Toronto. She has travelled around the globe with her camera documenting people and places as well as volunteering. Talia enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. When she's not reporting, you can find her reading or strolling the city with a film camera.

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