SiRT is adding an African Nova Scotian to the investigation team probing Santina Rao’s arrest at a Halifax Walmart last month, says the police watchdog’s interim director.
Pat Curran said he intended to meet with the candidate on Friday and would appoint the person to help in the investigation of Halifax Regional Police officers who were involved in a physical altercation with a young black mother at Mumford Road Walmart. He said he’ll make the appointment next week.
He suggested the position wasn’t necessary until now because the vast majority of the Serious Incident Response Team investigations haven’t included African Nova Scotians.
“It hasn’t particularly been an issue when you haven’t been dealing with anybody from that community,” said Curran. “I suppose that’s why it comes to the fore now because we are.”
He said the candidate would offer an important voice and insights for the investigation team.
SiRT’s mandate is to examine incidents where people are seriously injured by police and to decide whether criminal charges are warranted. Rao said she suffered serious injuries, including a broken wrist and concussion from the Jan. 15 confrontation. Rao, who has no criminal record, objected to being accused of shoplifting while inside the store with her two children. A widely shared video showed the exchange with two police officers and a security person. Rao reacted when one of the officers reached for her arm. The officer forced her to the ground and punched her in the face before she was arrested.
Members of the African Nova Scotia community have accused the police of discriminating against Rao and using excessive force. Six days after the incident, SIRT began its investigation.
Curran has the authority under the province’s Police Act to appoint “a community liaison or observer to work with the team in the course of an investigation.”
Curran said that plans are also in the works to establish a permanent civilian liaison committee that would include representation from the African Nova Scotian community. He said the group would be struck in the “very near future.”
Curran wouldn’t say exactly what role the soon-to-be-named candidate would play in SiRT’s investigation team. The team includes a current and a retired RCMP officer. He also wouldn’t say whether the African Nova Scotia community was consulted before the candidate was selected.
“I really don’t want to get into the process of how I went about this,” Curran said.
Dartmouth lawyer Gordon Allen is representing Rao, who’s facing three charges from the Walmart incident: causing a disturbance, assault causing bodily harm to an officer, and resisting arrest.
The case is scheduled for next Wednesday in provincial court.
Allen said the appointment is a positive move that could potentially provide important context for his client’s case. He hopes the appointment won’t amount to “window dressing.”
“Hopefully, the person has some experience in dealing with issues of policing in the black community, someone from the African Nova Scotia community,” said Allen. “That person should know the community and how it feels to be a black Nova Scotian dealing with the police.”
SiRT can only recommend that the police be charged criminally. It will not examine other questions about the police’s conduct during the Walmart incident, specifically whether Rao was racial profiled by police.
Allen said he’s pursuing all legal options. That includes civil action against HRP. He said Rao will likely file a complaint to The Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner that will investigate other aspects of the officers’ conduct.
He said Rao is still dealing with the effects of a mild traumatic brain injury and a broken wrist. As a result, she’s been unable to look after her children full time. Her parents are caring for her kids for half the week and family and friends are helping her make meals.
Allen said Rao wants to make sure that what happened to her doesn’t happen to anyone else.
“She wants something positive to come out of this, some positive change to minimize the chances of this happening again. We’re in the early stages of it.”