Indigenous shoppers say they were racially profiled at Superstores by Winnipeg police
Some Winnipeg Superstores hiring paid duty police officers to check customers bags and receipts
A Winnipeg woman says she was left feeling humiliated last week after a police officer grabbed and held her by the shoulder until she produced her receipt inside of a Real Canadian Superstore.
On Dec. 2, Jenna Comegan and her sister went to purchase a few items from the Superstore on St. Anne's Road. She alleges that she and her sister were racially profiled by two Winnipeg police officers working inside of the grocery retailer.
The incident took place at a time when thefts and violent robberies at Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corporation stores are making local headlines. The corporation has said there are hundreds of thefts that take place inside of their Liquor Marts on a weekly basis.
The sisters are from Big Grassy River First Nation and are Ojibway. Comegan said they paid for their items at a cashier lane and then they went to the Liquor Mart Express inside the grocery store to buy a bottle of wine.
They provided identification when asked before going into the Liquor Mart and noticed the two police officers watching them as they shopped. Comegan said they purchased a bottle of wine and went to exit the store, but were physically stopped by a police officer before the exit.
"We're going to walk out the door, as we're walking… I felt someone grab me really tight, like on my back, and I got spun around and I noticed there was a cop and he said 'Let me see your receipt,'" said Comegan.
Comegan said the police officer held her by the shoulder and wouldn't let go of her until her sister produced a receipt for the wine.
"I looked at Janaye, my sister, and there's another cop standing right behind her. And she was frantically looking for the receipt and I looked at the cop. I was like, 'Can you please let me go?'" said Comegan.
She said after her sister produced the receipt, the officer let go of her shoulder.
"I walked out and I was shaking… And I just broke down after that," said Comegan.
After the incident, Jenna's sister Janaye Comegan wrote a Facebook post about her experience and said that she felt "in shock, traumatized, upset, angry, and... humiliated with this experience."
The sisters are questioning why they were singled out from among the other shoppers inside the store.
Different incident at another Superstore
In a separate incident, Chris Wescoupe, 47, said he believes he was also racially profiled by Winnipeg police at the Real Canadian Superstore, this time at the location on 80 Bison Drive.
Wescoupe said he walked into the location on Dec. 1 around 4:30 p.m. and began to make small talk with one of the police officers standing at the front of the store.
"I was talking to him and another officer approached me and said I had to leave. I asked why and he stated that I was identified as a person that was stealing from the store before," said Wescoupe.
"I kept asking if there was evidence, or for the manager, and he still denied me and told me if I didn't leave I'd be arrested."
Wescoupe lives in the area near the Superstore and said he has been going to that location for seven years. He denied the theft allegation and said he felt like he was racially profiled.
"[It's] because of who I am and what I look like. I mean, I'm Native," said Wescoupe.
"There's no other reason why I'd be singled out… I mean you see it a lot in the news and to actually have it happen to me firsthand, It's kind of weird. I've never stolen anything and I don't have a criminal record. I actually help out in the community."
Superstore refers questions to Winnipeg police
In an effort to curb retail thefts from happening in Winnipeg, companies have been hiring private security officers.
In late October, the founder and CEO of Impact Security Group, Ron D'Errico told CBC News his company had had a 68 per cent increase in requests for security officers at retail places such as pharmacies, grocery stores and liquor outlets in the last year.
CBC News reached out to Loblaws, the parent company of The Real Canadian Superstore, for comment on hiring paid duty Winnipeg police officers for loss prevention services.
In an email to CBC News about what happened to the Comegan sisters, Loblaws spokesperson Catherine Thomas wrote that "the safety of our colleagues and customers is our first priority."
"As part of our comprehensive strategy to provide a safe environment to work and shop in, Superstore employs paid duty Winnipeg police officers in some locations.
"We are currently reviewing the situation that was recently brought to our attention and suggest you reach out to the Winnipeg Police Services with questions about any police interventions."
On Wednesday afternoon, Winnipeg police spokesperson Jay Murray said police had reviewed videotapes of both incidents at the Superstores.
In the case of the Comegan sisters at the St. Anne's Road location, Murray said the police officers were told by two different Superstore employees that the pair were acting suspiciously inside the store.
"[Police] don't have the luxury of seeing the video at that exact moment and they have to rely on what's communicated to them," said Murray.
He said Jenna Comegan was detained based on reasonable grounds of suspicion. He said the incident was "innocuous" and lasted a total of 32 seconds.
In regards to the incident with Wescoupe at the Bison Drive store, Murray said it was a case of mistaken identity and that the situation has been remedied.
"It's my understanding that he was escorted out of the store and then Mr. Wescoupe ... I think he contacted both management with Superstore and I believe he contacted our professional standards unit."
Murray said Wescoupe has a letter waiting for him to indicate that he is welcome back to the store.
Wescoupe said Wednesday that even if he is welcome back to the store, he does not plan on shopping there.
"That excuse has been used for the past 30 years," he said.
"It's their go-to excuse. 'It's a mistaken identity.' It's an old rhetoric that shouldn't be used, not in a new modern age."
Wescoupe said he would rather drive across the city to shop than go back to the Superstore.
Educating the staff
Former Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak grand chief Sheila North said she understands why there has been in increase in security at retail outlets in the city. But she also said she knows what it feels like to be followed while shopping.
"It's never a nice feeling when you're being questioned for being in the store and being questioned whether or not you're legitimately taking stuff out or not," said North.
North said she hopes retailers will educate the hired security and staff about the socio-economic conditions that exist in Winnipeg.
"I think management needs to do better at informing and educating their staff and also the security companies they hire about awareness and letting them know what's what and why things are the way they are."
Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, said adding police to retail stores does little to address the root causes of why people are stealing from stores.
"It shows just how far we're willing to go to not deal with the actual problems that the city is facing and how deeply punitive and vengeful our approach to problem solving is," said Dobchuk-Land.
She said she thinks rates of theft are up because the cost of food and housing continues to increase. She said she thinks that people will be racially profiled if police are put into positions where they have the discretion to guess who is a potential thief.
"Incidents like this… happen all the time, but only some people feel brave enough to speak out about them publicly," said Dobchuk-Land.
"They have nothing to do with crime, they're purely scenarios that are caused by putting police in places that police shouldn't be."