When a young black woman accused the Halifax police of racially profiling and abusing her in connection with an alleged shoplifting incident at Walmart last week, officials did what officials do. They obfuscated, they passed the buck, they pretended to take it seriously.
I still don’t know nearly enough about what actually happened inside the Mumford Road Walmart shortly after 3:30 pm last Wednesday afternoon, but I already know too much to have faith we will get full and complete answers from either a we-take-allegations-like-this-seriously Halifax Regional Police or a buck-passing Walmart.
Let’s start with what we do know. According to her Facebook posts and subsequent interviews, including with The Examiner’s El Jones, Santina Rao, a 23-year-old single mother with no criminal record, was shopping in Walmart with her two young children, aged three and 15 months.
She paid for $90 worth of items in the electronics department. The cashier told her she couldn’t pay for her produce in that department because it had to be weighed. On her way to the checkout, she placed the bag with her items on her stroller, and stopped in the toy aisle to buy her daughter a Barbie. She planned to pay for her purchases at the check-out before she left the store.
In the toy aisle, in front of her young children Rao was approached by three floor walkers and two police officers and accused of stealing items and concealing them. She says she offered them to search her bags and even the stroller…
Wait a sec… One young woman with two small kids, one in a stroller, confronted by three store security guards and two armed police officers? And inside the store, before she’d even had a chance to pay for her produce? For shoplifting one head of lettuce, two lemons and a grapefruit, after having just paid $90 for DVDs?
According to Rao, the police ignored her offer to let them search her bags and stroller. Instead, as she wrote on Facebook, “they disregarded me and called MORE cops to get involved because I was ‘being hysterical.’”
Hysterical? That seems like a not-unreasonable response to being accused of stealing something you were planning to pay for when suddenly confronted by the full weight of a phalanx of police and security personnel.
So now we have one young woman, a toddler and an infant up against the combined might of six cops and three security guards. The cops had apparently now decided to arrest her, not for stealing anything — she hadn’t yet even reached the checkout — but for “causing a disturbance” by disputing the allegations against her.
Things escalated quickly after that, as is clear from the photos Rao shared on social media, as well as a 17-second bystander video that shows only the final seconds of the confrontation in which Rao is knocked to the floor by an officer and jumped on. Her own subsequent photos show “injuries to her face. Her neck is swollen and bruised where she says she was pinned down by an officer’s ‘boot, knee, and hands.’ Her wrists are bruised from the handcuffs.”
After Rao posted her experience and her all-caps racial profiling accusation on social media — “THEY SAW A BLACK WOMAN AND WANTED TO ACCUSE ME OF THEFT… you bet your fucking ass I’m counter-suing and also for racial profiling”— the Halifax police issued its own media release concerning its response to a (sic) “theft in progress.”
Officers approached a woman who was believed to have concealed items. She became verbally abusive and was behaving aggressively. The officers then attempted to place the woman under arrest for causing a disturbance. She resisted and assaulted one of the officers. The officer was taken to hospital for treatment and later released.
A 23-year-old Halifax woman has been charged with causing a disturbance, assaulting a peace officer and resisting arrest. She will appear in Halifax Provincial Court at a later date.
Uh, let’s back that truck up. Police claim they were investigating a theft in progress, but none of the charges filed against Rao have anything to do with stealing anything. They’re all the result of what happened after police accused her of stealing.
And “assaulting a police officer”? According to Rao, she admits scratching at a police officer’s face after he tried to grab her daughter. It would be interesting to compare his injuries with hers.
One way to get a fuller sense of what actually happened her would be to examine the store’s inevitably extensive video footage of the incident from its start in the electronics department where Rao bought and paid for her purchases to the chaotic scene in the toy department where one hulking officer surrounded by other hulking officers tackled a 23-year-old black woman.
Will we ever see that video?
Not likely, unless as part of a court case brought by Rao herself.
On Friday, the Chronicle Herald contacted Walmart’s head office in Toronto to find out whether it is investigating the incident.
“Company spokeswoman Felicia Fefer replied with an email that didn’t address the question, saying inquiries should be directed to HRP. ‘We are aware the police arrested a woman at our Halifax store on Wednesday afternoon. It is our understanding the police are investigating the matter and any inquiries you have should be directed to the police.’”
“Aware?” “Our understanding?” Again, questions and no answers. Did Walmart not invite police officers on to their property to arrest a woman who hadn’t yet stolen anything? Do they not have a responsibility for what happens to their customers in such circumstances?
A Herald reporter also asked on Friday to interview Halifax police chief Dan Kinsella. You may remember that in November Kinsella publicly apologized to the black community for the force’s long and troubling history of racial profiling and mistreatment of the community, and promised to do better. The paper “did not receive a reply.”
Kinsella is expected to appear Monday at a Board of Police Commissioners’ meeting to discuss the incident. But that briefing will take place in-camera, and apparently it will not include any evidence from Rao herself, or hear directly from the officers or witnesses.
Not nearly good enough.
Calvin Lawrence, a black man, a retired former Halifax police and RCMP officer, knows a thing or two about racism and racial profiling. As he told the Herald on Friday, there “must be a timely, accurate investigation” into exactly what happened, “and then you tell the truth to the people, no matter who it helps or who it hurts.”
That shouldn’t be too much to ask, but it appears to be too much to expect.
This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner January 20, 2020.