Halifax man who won human rights case against police says the officers got off easy
Human rights board says officers discriminated against Gyasi Symonds, who is Black, with jaywalking ticket
Halifax's Gyasi Symonds says he's glad he won his human rights complaint against the Halifax Regional Police — but he says the two officers who racially discriminated against him got off with "a slap on the wrist."
The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission ruled on Wednesday that constables Paul Cadieux and Steve Logan racially profiled Symonds, who is Black, when they stopped him for jaywalking in 2017, then followed him back to his place of work to issue a $410 ticket.
The board's chair ordered the police force to pay Symonds $15,232 and give him a written apology. He also suggests all new hires complete training in policing without bias.
"I'm happy that the hearing worked out in my favour, but I don't feel like it sent the message," Symonds, who represented himself in the case, told As It Happens host Carol Off.
"These decisions are supposed to be made in a way where it deters people from wanting to behave that way again. And, you know, it was such a mild decision that it's almost worthwhile to keep discriminating if you can maintain your job and maintain your pension and you only have to take a course and apologize."
'Humiliated and I was terrified'
Symonds was first stopped by police on Jan. 24, 2017, after he crossed the road from his Gottingen Street office to grab a coffee from the Nook Espresso Bar.
He says it's common for people who work in his building to dart across the street to Nook for their caffeine fix, and that several of his white colleagues had crossed moments before him with no trouble at all.
The officers told him he'd jaywalked, and said they were only stopping him for his "own well-being and safety," he said.
After about 15 minutes, they let him go. He picked up his coffee, and says he crossed back over using the lights at the nearby intersection.
I don't want the situation to ever happen again, so I am very hesitant to go get a coffee or a doughnut or frequent some of the restaurants on the street .- Gyasi Symonds
But it didn't end there. A short time later, Symonds was back at his office when he got a call from the front desk. Police were in the building's lobby, and they were looking for "a Black man in a toque," he said.
The same two officers were waiting for him. They told Symonds they'd watched him leave the coffee shop, and saw him jaywalk again, which he denies. They asked for his ID and threatened to arrest him, he said.
"The whole demeanour and vibe of the situation was hostile," he said. "I was humiliated and I was terrified. I thought they were going to try to arrest me, and they were completely ready to do so. One had his hand on his gun."
Symonds' story was corroborated by Carolyn Brodie, the commissionaire working on the front desk of the lobby, who testified on his behalf in front of the human rights board of inquiry.
"She stated that she was worried the police were going to hurt Mr. Symonds, and that she was in shock by what she considered to be their disproportionate response," the ruling notes.
"She characterized Const. Cadieux's demeanour as not in control, and stated that he 'lost it' in response to Mr. Symonds speaking. She said the incident left her feeling shaken."
Halifax Regional Police told As It Happens the municipality is reviewing the decision to determine next steps, and declined to comment at the moment.
During the inquiry hearing, constables Cadieux and Logan defended their actions. They said they were following the rules, and that race did not play a role in their decision to pursue Symonds after he allegedly crossed in front of a stopped bus on his way back to work.
Officers denied wrongdoing
In his ruling, board of inquiry chair Benjamin Perryman said he was concerned about the decision of the officers to remain and observe Symonds after the first encounter.
"It subjected the complainant to policing that was different from other Nova Scotians going about their day. It was disproportionate to the circumstances of an individual crossing in the middle of the road to get a coffee and receiving informal education about jaywalking," he wrote.
"I find that race was a factor in the police officers' decision to target the complainant for surveillance and investigation."
While jaywalking is an offence under the province's Motor Vehicle Act, the ruling noted that Const. Logan told the tribunal he "had never issued such a ticket in his policing career. He further advised that reports for such tickets are normally only prepared where there is an accident."
Symonds says the whole ordeal has left him more wary than ever at work, especially knowing the two officers are still on duty.
"I don't want the situation to ever happen again, so I am very hesitant to go get a coffee or a doughnut or frequent some of the restaurants on the street that I do like," he said.
"A lot of times, I'm bound to my office now because it's not worthwhile to get in a confrontation with police."
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Canadian Press. Interview with Gyasi Symonds produced by Chris Harbord.
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.