One of the longest-tenured Black senior crown prosecutors in Nova Scotia’s history recently appointed as director of Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) is encouraging and welcoming questions from the Black community about cases in his new role.
Alonzo Wright becomes the fourth director of SIRT since its 2012 launch. He’s SIRT’s first director of African descent.
“It’s something very important and I am very proud that I’m the first African Nova Scotian director of this program with the Department of Justice,” Wright told the Halifax Examiner in his first interview since being appointed. “It’s a huge honour and I’m excited about taking on this role.”
SIRT is the civilian oversight agency that investigates matters involving death, serious injury, sexual assault, domestic violence, and other matters of significant public interest arising from alleged actions of RCMP and municipal police officers in Nova Scotia.
In 2021, the province reached an agreement that will have SIRT act officially as the oversight body that will also investigate matters involving police in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
Experience as a prosecutor prepared him for new role
Wright grew up in Halifax’s Uniacke Square and has family roots in the Black community of Beechville.
After graduating from Dalhousie University’s law school in 1994, Wright worked as a municipal prosecutor and then a federal prosecutor before becoming a Crown attorney with the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service. He worked there for almost 25 years.
Wright spoke with the Examiner about how his experience as a prosecutor has prepared him for his new role as SIRT director.
“As a Crown attorney, my role is to prosecute cases and do it fairly and independently,” he said. “So, this is kind of the similar role where … I have to justify why a case doesn’t go ahead — or goes ahead — to the public.”
“It’s not going to be a popular position at times, and sometimes it may be a popular position, but that’s what I signed up for.”
‘I encourage and welcome questions’
On Oct. 7, 2020, under its former director Felix Cacchione, SIRT released decisions on two high-profile investigations involving Halifax Regional Police interactions with young Black people that were videotaped and circulated online.
In one case, SIRT laid criminal charges against Cst. Mark Pierce, one of two responding officers who arrested 15-year-old Demario Chambers outside a Bedford mall on Feb. 21, 2020. Chambers sustained physical injuries in the arrest, was not criminally charged, and was released to his parents’ custody without being taken to jail.
In the other case, SIRT cleared the police of any wrongdoing in the arrest of a 23-year-old woman falsely suspected of shoplifting at a Walmart on Mumford Road on Jan. 15, 2020.
In the brief portion of the arrest caught on video, Santina Rao can be heard telling the police her two young children are present while she is forcibly arrested by multiple white male police officers and punched in the face while additional police officers and a Walmart employee looked on.
Tony Smith, a Black man who was brought on to assist with the SIRT investigation, said the investigation was flawed. He slammed Cacchione for being negligent and for undermining Smith’s involvement in the investigation. Among many of the flaws, Smith said evidence was ignored that one or more of the responding officers had previously been either accused and/or disciplined for past racist incidents.
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.”
‘I have to justify those cases’
As a Black prosecutor for 25 years, Wright said he’s often asked questions about specific cases.
“And again, this is where, you know, the transparency comes into play because I have to justify those cases. And when people in the Black community ask me about cases, whether high profile or low profile or in the system, I routinely answer their questions,” he said.
“I never made up any evidence. I never, you know, presented any evidence that wasn’t legitimate. And the court makes that decision about the guilt or innocence of an individual.”
“It’s the same kind of principles that I take on as the director. It’s that transparency. It’s [being] answerable to the public. It’s that kind of role that I want to bring to this position.”
Wright said anyone can call him if they have questions, or “even more importantly,” if they have a serious complaint against an officer.
“I want the community to know to … pick up the phone, call us and we’ll launch an investigation. And those that are willing to provide statements, [and to] give us the evidence we need to lay a charge, then that’s exactly what we’ll do. It’s that easy. No one is above the law,” he said.
Wright emphasized, however, that SIRT’s mandate is not to investigate any and all allegations and complaints of police misconduct but rather, specifically those that are of a “serious” nature.
“Now, to those people that have minor incidents, they can have other avenues to go. It’s not closed. They can file complaints with the police force, they can speak to other investigators on the police force and have the charges laid there. So that’s definitely something that’s open,” Wright said.
“And doesn’t have to be physical. You could have something like fraud or theft or something like that where you could go to the police or go to another agency and it may not be ours or maybe a referral from our agency to send something over to a regular agency to investigate.”
‘I dealt with police officers from around the province’
Wright said he also doesn’t feel any pressure from members of the justice community as a Black person working in a predominantly white-run justice system.
“My role as a Crown attorney is to get a file from the police officer,” he said. “And I dealt with police officers from around the province of Nova Scotia. So, it’s without question that you get to know who these officers are. … I don’t hang out with them, it’s not like we’re going out for coffee, it’s not like we’re going out to dinner. It’s that we’re working together within the criminal justice system.”
Wright reiterated that his work as a prosecutor has prepared him for his new role.
“There are probation officers that I’ve prosecuted, there are other people in the criminal justice system that are prosecuted because my job was to travel around the province. So unbeknownst to me, I’ve prosecuted sheriffs who became involved in the criminal justice system, because I don’t know them,” he said.
“My job as director is to have my investigators go out and investigate charges and complaints. And if the investigator comes back and says, ‘Look, there’s reasonable, probable grounds to lay this charge,’ then I signed off on it, and away it goes. And it goes to the Crown attorney’s office and the Crown attorney prosecutes it. That’s it.”
‘This is an indication that things are changing’
Wright takes over as SIRT director on Jan. 9. He will replace the current acting director, retired Crown attorney, John Scott.
“I understand that there have been criticisms of the program in the past. I understand there’s been mistrust that’s been somewhat generated in the past,” Wright said.
“With time, hopefully the Black community and others in the community will see this is a good program now, we’re straight shooters, and that’s it.”
“Historically in Nova Scotia, you have to remember people of colour and African Nova Scotians really were never involved at this level. And, you know, this is an indication that things are changing.”