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Edmonton Police Service racially discriminated against 2 Black men, human rights tribunal finds

The Edmonton Police Service discriminated against two Black men by perceiving them as perpetrators of a crime when they had been trying to stop one, according to a recent decision from the Human Rights Tribunal of Alberta. 

Yousef John and Caesar Judianga made human rights complaints in 2018 after being pepper-sprayed and arrested in 2017.

The men, who had called 911 for help, alleged that police treated them badly in part because of their race.

The tribunal found their complaints against EPS had merit.

“I find that the evidence supports that the general demeanour and attitude of the police officers was based on stereotypes regarding Black males, including that they were ‘angry’ and ‘aggressive’ and likely responsible for perpetuating a crime, not for trying to stop one,” said commission member Erika Ringseis in the Aug. 29 decision.

Ringseis ordered that the complaints against the individual officers be dismissed, saying in the decision that there was no evidence that the officers intentionally or consciously discriminated against the complainants or acted grossly outside their scope of power.

The hearing will be reconvened to determine a remedy. Remedies provide compensation for losses and they can be financial or non-financial.  

The complainants’ lawyer, Nnam Okoye of the Oak Law Firm, said Judianga is happy with the decision, although disappointed by how long the human rights complaint process is taking. Okoye said he has not yet been able to reach John.

Lauren Wozny, EPS’s director of media relations and public affairs, said the police service is applying for a judicial review of the decision. In an email on Friday, she said EPS was not in a position to comment further.

Early morning disturbance

At around 3:15 a.m. on May 5, 2017, Judianga heard a disturbance outside the residence he shared with John and a third man, Harry Lado. 

When Judianga looked outside, he saw a white woman with pink hair throw what looked like a large rock through the window of the car that belonged to Lado’s wife. 

The three men chased the woman and while John called 911, Lado, a former bouncer, held her in place with his hands on her shoulders. 

The Edmonton Police Service crest and logo on the front of a podium made of wood.
An Edmonton Police Service logo is shown at a press conference in Edmonton, Oct. 2, 2017. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

According to the decision, within less than a minute of arriving on the scene and without warning, EPS Const. Jordan Steele aimed his pepper spray at Lado, then John and Judianga. The woman received some spray in her eyes, but not as much as the men, whose eyes began to tear and burn.

The decision said Const. Steele, who was smaller than the three men, felt the situation was dangerous and that Lado was possibly assaulting the woman. 

Steele then arrested the three men, told them to lie down and handcuffed them. Another police officer, Const. Celia Frattin, arrived and helped with the handcuffing. 

The tribunal decision refers to the officers by their surnames only. EPS did not respond to an email asking for confirmation of their first names, but Okoye, the complainants’ lawyer, confirmed the names with CBC News.

‘Could have been shot’

Once Steele understood the three men, heard their accounts and verified their identification, they were released and given water to rinse their eyes.

The men accused the police officers of discrimination and during a heated discussion between them and the police, Frattin told them they were lucky it was just pepper spray because they “could have been shot.”

Frattin testified that because she does not carry pepper spray, she would have had to pull out her gun if force was necessary. She said she did not make the comment because the men were Black.

The tribunal decision found the comment was grounded in discrimination and bias.

“There is no reason that a person of colour should be told to feel ‘lucky’ that they weren’t shot after they had been accused of a crime, sprayed with [oleoresin capsicum] spray and arrested, even as they were on the phone to 911,” the decision reads. 

Frattin gave the woman water and let her sit in the back of a police car while she rinsed her eyes. Frattin then escorted the woman to her friend’s house. The woman told the police officer she had been walking to her friend’s house when she saw a man and a woman who threw a rock at a car. The woman was never charged for damaging the vehicle.

Frattin testified that the woman seemed like a traumatized young girl. 

Complaint dismissed

In February 2018, John and Judianga complained to EPS’s professional standards branch, which investigates misconduct allegations.

In October 2019, the professional standards branch finished its internal screening investigation of the two constables’ actions and concluded there was no reasonable prospect of establishing the facts necessary to obtain a conviction at a disciplinary hearing.

The patrol sergeant who was on duty in the downtown region at the time of the incident and who examined the use of pepper spray, determined it was a reasonable and necessary use of force. 

Another police officer, called by EPS to provide expert testimony at the tribunal hearing, agreed with Steele and the patrol sergeant that using the spray was acceptable.

Implicit bias

Two expert witnesses, called upon by the complainants and the tribunal’s director during the hearing, spoke about implicit bias.

Eric Hehman, an associate professor of psychology at McGill University, who researches intergroup prejudice, testified that people tend to make more positive associations with people in their own group.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an associate professor at the University of Toronto who studies racial bias and policing, testified that although he could not make any firm conclusions about whether implicit bias was at play in this incident, he said it would be likely to be present in the circumstances. 

Community leader asks for apology

Mawien Akot, a physician and leader in Edmonton’s South Sudanese community, called the incident appalling and said he wasn’t surprised it happened. 

All three of the men were of South Sudanese ancestry.

Akot said his community members have been racially profiled many times.

Akot said when he first arrived in Alberta 25 years ago, he used to teach children that police would protect them, but not anymore. 

“Our people are so scared to the point that they don’t even bother to call 911 anymore,” he said.

Akot said he wants EPS to learn from what happened, apologize to the community and involve them in making positive changes. 

Culture change

Shalini Sinha, the chair of Edmonton’s anti-racism advisory committee and an anti-racism consultant, said the case struck her as an obvious example of discrimination.

She said addressing implicit bias requires cultural change. 

“We have to shift some of the activities and responsibilities away from EPS to other well-resourced, community based, Black-led, Indigenous-led organizations that become partners with EPS,” she said.

She also said that the individual police officers should be held accountable for their actions. 

“Because without that, there isn’t a motivation for individuals to stand up against the culture that they find themselves in,” she said.

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