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Desmond Cole: Halifax police publicly downplayed Santina Rao’s injuries hours before reporting them to oversight agency

Photo Robert Devet

This article was originally published on Cole’s Notes, a blog by Desmond Cole. It is reprinted here with Desmond’s kind permission.

After several unnamed Halifax police officers assaulted Santina Rao at a Walmart on January 15, breaking her wrist and causing her a concussion, the police force had a legal duty to inform the Serious Injury Response Team (SIRT) that oversees police use of force. But hours before Halifax police reported the incident to SIRT, constable John MacLeod told the media his police force did not believe Rao’s injuries meet SIRT’s threshold for investigation.

SIRT interim director Pat Curran confirmed with me by telephone that he only learned of Rao’s situation on “late Thursday afternoon,” more than a day after the attack and hours after MacLeod, the HRP’s Public Information Officer, dismissed the need for an investigation.

Nova Scotia’s Police Act instructs senior police officials who learn of serious injuries their officers may have caused to”notify the [SIRT] Director as soon as practicable.” By publicly downplaying Rao’s injuries before reporting them to SIRT, police appear to have violated their legal reporting duty.

Rao says she had tried to pay for all her items at the store’s electronics checkout on January 15, but the cashier couldn’t process some of her purchases—a grapefruit, a head of lettuce, and two lemons—because he didn’t have a scale to weigh produce items. Rao paid for the remainder of her items, and the cashier directed her to pay for her produce separately at another cashier.

As Rao walked with her children to another cashier, her daughter stopped at the toy section and asked for a Barbie doll. At this time, three Walmart staffers, a security guard and a Halifax police officer confronted Rao and accused her of concealing store items. When Rao said she had nothing to hide, and invited her accusers to search her purse, the police officer asked Rao to provide identification. After she produced her ID, the officer began asking if Rao’s home address matched the one on her ID card. Rao replied that this question had nothing to do with the accusation that she was stealing from the store.

“I told him there’s no evidence or proof that I’m shoplifting rights now,” Rao said earlier this week in an interview. “I don’t understand why I’m being ID’d and why all this information about me is being asked in such a public area.” The police officer said Rao was “being hysterical”, called for backup, and told her she could be arrested for disturbing the peace.

After more police arrived, several officers took her to the ground in front of her children. She suffered a concussion, a broken left wrist, and swelling and bruises to her face, back, neck and arms. Rao said an officer handcuffed her while saying “she’s a feisty fucking bitch, this one.” Police charged Rao with assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, and causing a disturbance—they separated her from her children and put her into a police cruiser without providing her with medical attention.

The fact that SIRT only learned of the incident from police more than a day after it occurred demonstrates a major gap in police oversight and accountability. The law expects police forces to report their own violent conduct to SIRT. Multiple news agencies reported Rao’s story on Thursday afternoon. It’s troubling that SIRT lacked the basic media scanning practices to receive the news, and had to rely on Halifax police to report its own violence later that evening.

SIRT has now opened a formal investigation into the officers who assaulted Rao, and announced its decision late Tuesday afternoon, seven days after the attack. SIRT’s investigation could result in criminal charges for the unnamed officers who attacked Rao.

SIRT states on its website that “our mandate is to investigate all matters that involve death, serious injury, sexual assault and domestic violence” that arise from a Nova Scotia police officer’s actions. The first example of a serious injury on SIRT’s list is “fractures to limbs, ribs, head or spine.”

Since Rao’s broken wrist meets the SIRT threshold for serious injury, it’s troubling the agency needed nearly a week to open its investigation. Since Rao received medical treatment for her fracture and concussion at Queen Elizabeth II hospital, her situation also meets SIRT’s threshold of “admission to hospital as a result of the injury.”

Rao confirmed by phone Tuesday morning that SIRT officials visited her at home two days after the attack, and that she authorized them to view records from her visit to the emergency room. That same afternoon, Global news inaccurately reported that “Nova Scotia’s police watchdog is now investigating an incident that left a woman with injuries.” The article later cites Curran as saying, “We began a preliminary review today to see whether the incident appears to be within our mandate.” It took four more days for SIRT to formally open its investigation.Rao said yesterday she was glad to hear news of the SIRT investigation, and added that “hopefully something comes of it.” For a more detailed account from Rao of her ongoing struggle for accountability, you can listen to this interview I conducted with her on Sunday for Newstalk 1010 radio.

Desmond Cole is an activist and freelance journalist in Toronto. The Halifax launch of his first book, The Skin We’re In, is scheduled for Friday, February 13, at the Kings College Alumni Hall.

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