When Alonzo Wright was appointed Director of Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) in December 2022, he gave his first interview to Matthew Byard, the Examiner’s Local Initiatives Reporter.
Wright’s appointment as SIRT’s first director of African descent came at a fraught moment in the decade-long existence of the civilian police oversight body, whose role is to investigate serious incidents involving the police.
Its previous director, retired judge Felix Cacchione, had recently authored two controversial decisions in cases involving dramatic videotaped interactions between the Halifax Regional Police and young Black people.
In one, a 15-year Black youth named Demario Chambers suffered physical injuries after Halifax police arrested him in an incident outside a Bedford mall in February 2020. Police didn’t end up pressing criminal charges against him and eventually released the young man to his parents’ custody without taking him to jail.
In that case, SIRT did eventually lay assault charges against Cst. Mark Pierce, one of the officers involved. The officer was suspended with pay and collected more than $300,000 over the next three years for doing no work at all. In May 2023, his case was finally referred to a restorative justice process. I’m unclear about the state of a subsequent promised internal police investigation.
In the other case, a young Black woman named Santina Rao was accused of shoplifting at a local Walmart and then violently arrested in front of her two young children. After police and security prevented her young daughter from coming to her, the confrontation escalated. Rao was charged with resisting arrest. But she was never charged with shoplifting.
Concluded Cacchione’s report:
The actions of the two [police officers] in this matter were lawfully justified and required to effect the arrest and protect themselves from the actions of [Rao]. Had [Rao] complied with the requests made by the [officers], she would not have been arrested and the injury to her wrist would not have occurred.
Accordingly, there are no grounds for any charges against either officer.
But … if there were no grounds for arresting Rao for shoplifting, did she not have a right to resist her unlawful arrest? But I digress.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Byard raised those cases in his interview with Wright, a veteran provincial Crown attorney.
Wright said he can’t comment specifically on past cases involving SIRT but doesn’t feel any added pressure as a Black person in his role based on his own experience and what he brings to the table.
“As long as I can justify my rationale for whether or not a charge proceeds — as the director of SIRT, on reasonable and probable grounds, and lay a charge — then I’m comfortable that the Black community and others in the community will accept that,” Wright said.
“And if they can’t, they have every right to ask questions. And I encourage and welcome questions and have me be checked by the members of the Black community, and members of other communities to say, ‘Hey, why didn’t the charge get laid?’ Here’s why it didn’t get laid, or here’s why it’s getting laid.”
That offers an interesting backdrop to Wright’s own most recent SIRT report.
In December 2022, a Dartmouth woman filed a lawsuit claiming that” without warning, or indication of violence, aggression, or threat,” several Halifax police officers had beaten her on the back and the head with a baton as she was being escorted to the drunk tank the year before, in December 2021. The woman’s lawsuit named the city, the police force and the officers involved, identified and unidentified. Around the same time, she filed a formal complaint about her treatment.
On December 15, 2022, the Examiner’s Zane Woodford filed a brief report outlining the fact of the woman’s lawsuit, including quoting from the statement of claim her lawyer had filed.
You should read it for yourself in full because we’ll come back to it.
It’s worth noting, first, that a lawyer’s statement of claim, often containing unproven allegations, is a public document.
It’s also worth noting that Woodford included this important caveat in his story.
None of the defendants has filed a defence. The allegations in the attached statement of claim have not been proven in court.
After investigating the woman’s allegations, including attempting to interview her and examining video surveillance footage from the police cells where the incident was supposed to have taken place, Wright concluded:
There is not one video showing the AP [Affected Party] being struck with a police baton or showing the AP hemorrhaging significantly from the head area. The only evidence that the AP lost consciousness was when they are asleep on the bench in the cell area. The video is very clear. I see no wrongdoing, whatsoever by any officer or employee on the entirety of the video. To the contrary, the officers were very respectful for the duration… No actions of any of these officers caused or contributed to any injury.
Fair enough. On Friday, Woodford reported in detail on Wright’s report too. Follow up. That’s what good journalists do.
Which is where Wright went wrong. Instead of letting his conclusions speak for themselves, he attacked Woodford’s initial reporting.
This matter received one-sided and biased press coverage that sensationalized the AP’s allegations without any supporting documentation and essentially defamed one of the officers that caused serious financial obligations to that officer personally and was based on no evidence whatsoever.
Let’s consider more carefully exactly what Wright is saying here. First, he blames Woodford for quoting from a public legal document in a story in which he makes clear that the other side has not been heard from.
But then, he goes even further, blaming Woodford for defaming an officer, whose name was already public because he had been named in the lawsuit, and then piling on — without evidence, as the lawyers like to say — by suggesting Woodford’s reporting was responsible for the officer’s unidentified “serious financial obligations.”
Wright appears to have made a power leap here from reporting his investigative findings to assuming the role of media attack dog and finally becoming a police apologist.
Examiner editor Tim Bousquet rightly pushed back in Friday’s Morning File:
The Examiner regularly reports on court filings, especially those alleging inappropriate actions on the part of police. This is what a free press does; it’s the point of a free press — to hold the powerful to account.
We are also fair and accurate. Whenever we report on such a case, we make a point of saying where the case stands in the legal process, and we keep abreast of the case as it moves through the courts. We keep a running list of such cases and pull the court files whenever there are new filings, and then report on those.
The SIRT director is apparently saying that there should be no media coverage of complaints against police. That should concern all of us.
One would like to believe/hope/pretend this was a one-off.
But in Nova Scotia, blame the messenger is, and has long been, business as usual.
Consider one other related but unrelated item from that same Friday Morning File.
My colleague, Jennifer Henderson, reported on a post-cabinet meeting scrum with reporters. During it, Brian Flinn, the veteran allnovascotia.com politics reporter, asked Premier Tim Houston if he considered his government’s secretive appointment of Tory operative Rob Batherson to a position with the newly minted Clean Electricity Solutions Task Force as “patronage.”
Before we hear Houston’s response, a little background, courtesy of Jennifer:
Batherson is the former president of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party, and previously worked as part of the executive team at Colour, a public relations and advertising firm. He has volunteered on many community boards, including chairing Neptune Theatre. He worked as communications director for former PC Premier John Hamm. In 2017, Batherson ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for the provincial PC party in the riding of Halifax Citadel-Sable Island.
Batherson’s appointment with the Clean Electricity Task Force was not made public and was ferreted out through a Freedom of Information request made by Brian Flinn…
Houston’s initial response was perhaps not unreasonable.
[He] described the hiring as the result “of a competitive process” where five parties had been “invited” to submit bids and only one responded, Batherson’s Harbourview Public Affairs.
Perhaps… Houston, of course, didn’t bother to explain why he didn’t bother to make Batherson’s appointment public at the time or why he wasn’t transparent about the hiring process, including who was asked to bid and why they declined to do so. But then, like Wright, Houston chose to defend his government’s appointment by attacking journalists for finding out what the government doesn’t appear to want us to know:
“I think until the end of time, reporters will sit in this room and look at people who are doing work for the government and ascribe some sinister motive to it,” Houston said. “When the government goes through a competitive process and one person responds, I guess your suggestion would be that we just not do the work because we only had one respondent and some people don’t like the respondent or their past.”
And, of course, Houston didn’t address the larger “pattern of behaviour” issue, which Liberal MLA Braedon Clark raised:
“Unfortunately, this is a pattern we see with this government where they are hiring friends and confidantes and people who are involved in the provincial or federal party. We saw that with Invest Nova Scotia, we saw that with Build Nova Scotia — we see that now on Clean Electricity and at the Nova Scotia Health Authority (with the appointment of Karen Oldfield as interim CEO two years ago). This is not an isolated incident but a pattern across government.”
There are too many similar patterns in Nova Scotia. As John Prine once wrote, “The news just repeats itself/ like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen.”
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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