HALIFAX — The Crown in Nova Scotia has dropped all charges against a Black woman accused of resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer during a confrontation in a Walmart that led to allegations of racial profiling and police brutality.
As the charges were being withdrawn inside the provincial court in Halifax, Santina Rao told a news conference on the front steps that she planned to file a formal complaint against Halifax Regional Police and civil actions against the police force and Walmart.
“Complete freedom from this instance would be that the police involved would be held accountable and that Walmart would also be held accountable,” she said during an emotional presentation.
About 50 people — most of them wearing masks and standing well apart to respect public health guidelines — gathered nearby to show their support for the 23-year-old mother of two.
A large red banner behind Rao read: “Black Lives Matter.”
Another large sign said: “No racist cops, no racist shops.” One woman held a cardboard sign that read, “Solidarity with Santina.”
Rao said she was with her son — a toddler in a stroller — and her three-year-old daughter in the toy aisle at a Halifax-area Walmart on Jan. 15 when she was approached by two Halifax Regional Police officers, two Walmart floor-walkers and one mall security officer.
She said she was accused of shoplifting because she had placed $6.50 worth of produce in the bottom rack of the stroller, which she said is common for mothers who already have their hands full with excited children.
Rao said she tried to show the officers her receipts and agreed to let them search her purse and the stroller.
A cellphone video of the incident shows police wrestling Rao to the floor as she protests.
She suffered a broken wrist and a concussion, which has led to an investigation by Nova Scotia’s independent police watchdog agency.
Rao said she received countless online threats and abuse in the weeks following the arrest. As well, she said her daughter is still struggling with the emotional fallout, almost seven months after the event.
“She still talks about it every single day,” Rao said, adding that her daughter has become very protective of her. “Sometimes she says, ’Mommy, I’m going to protect you from the police.’ Her vision of police is brutality.”
Rao said both of her children, who have light complexions, are often mistaken for being white.
“If I looked like my children, would I be treated like that?” she said. “We just want to be treated the way white people treat white people.”
Despite the traumatic event and the ensuing backlash, Rao said many people have come forward to offer her encouragement and empathy.
“I’m so floored that so many people — even today, out here right now — are supporting me,” she said as the crowd erupted with applause.
“I really had no idea that so many people would care.”
Rao had faced charges of disturbing the peace, resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.
Her lawyer, Gordon Allen, said the Crown decided there was no reasonable prospect for conviction and that prosecuting the case was not in the public interest.
“She was still shopping, for heaven’s sake,” he told the news conference. “There was no crime being committed … There was no reason for this to happen.”
Allen said the investigation by the watchdog agency, the Serious Incident Response Team, will look into how Rao was injured, but he said the complaint under the Police Act and the civil lawsuits will look into broader issues, including bias and racial profiling.
“The hope is that this will contribute to the processes happening all over North America about evaluating policing and how police can better deal with individuals,” he said.
Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella issued a statement Tuesday saying the police force will allow the investigation to follow its course.
“Regardless of the outcome of the SIRT investigation or any next steps, today I want to acknowledge the hurt this incident has caused to all involved,” Kinsella said.
“The trust between the public and a police service is crucial. We will let the process continue to its conclusion and we will learn from this incident and improve as an organization.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2020.
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press