The officers involved are still on the job and Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella had little to say publicly on Monday about the violent arrest of a young Black mother at Walmart last week, citing an ongoing court case and a potential investigation.
Kinsella addressed reporters after a meeting of the Halifax board of police commissioners on Monday, which included an in camera briefing on the arrest for the board — referred to as a “Public Security Matter” on the agenda.
Santina Rao, 23, was shopping at Walmart on Mumford Rd. on Wednesday with her two children, ages 3 years and 15 months. After buying some items in the store’s electronics department, Rao stopped in the toy department to get a Barbie for her daughter on her way to pay for some produce, stored in her stroller, at the front of the store.
Staff at the store called the police, and the officers who responded accused Rao of stealing the produce — a head of lettuce, two lemons, and a grapefruit — despite the fact that she hadn’t left the store. There was an argument as police continued to accuse her of stealing, and they tackled her to the ground, as shown in a video posted online.
Rao was left with bruises to her face, neck, and wrists, and charged with assaulting a police officer. She was not charged with theft.
“The last thing that we want to happen is what happened last week,” Kinsella told reporters on Monday, calling the incident “disappointing.”
Asked what the officers did wrong, Kinsella wouldn’t say they did anything wrong.
“If there was something to be done differently, we will change our behaviour,” he said. “We just have to get all the facts.”
Asked whether his officers need more training in de-escalation, Kinsella said the technique is “first and foremost” for his officers.
“If the review and investigation and subsequent recommendations show that further training is required, we’ll certainly do that,” he said.
The matter was referred to the province’s Serious Incident Response Team on Thursday. Kinsella said he’s still waiting to hear whether the team will investigate the arrest.
Kinsella said there were two officers involved and they are continuing to work.
“I need to get the evidence, I need to get the information, then some decisions will be made in that regard,” he said.
Kinsella said he didn’t make any public statements on the incident last week because police were still gathering evidence, and he knew reporters would have access to him on Monday.
“I don’t think that there was anything pressing in between from a public perception standpoint,” he said. “We did give a written statement out through our public relations department that we were investigating, but we have to take the appropriate steps.”’
Kinsella said it’s now up to the Crown whether to continue to pursue the charges against Rao.
“Those charges are before the courts and now it is a court process so that will be up to the courts to determine based on the evidence they receive,” he said.
The briefing for the board of police commissioners lasted about half an hour and happened behind closed doors.
Earlier in the meeting, the board heard three presentations regarding how police budgets should be redirected.
In the first presentation, activist and Examiner writer El Jones asked the board to freeze the police budget until the force has truly ended racial profiling. She also called on the board to provide an amount double the police budget to the community to fund programming, and to ask for a review of the budget to find savings. The municipality just conducted such a review, but won’t release it publicly.
The police are looking for a budget increase of nearly $1 million this year, bringing their budget to more than $90 million. The board approved that request earlier this month.
Jones’ presentation was met with scorn from Coun. Tony Mancini, who sits on the board. He asked Jones if she could name anything good the police have done in the last few years. She responded that the question wasn’t appropriate, and was an attempt to derail her presentation.
The next two presentations asked the board to fund harm reduction programs instead of raising the budget to supervise police cells, commonly known as the drunk tank.
At a cost of more than $300,000, Kinsella is looking to hire four new sergeants to supervise those cells, where a man died in custody in 2016. Two civilian booking officers were convicted of criminal negligence causing death after they left Corey Rogers, who was intoxicated, in his cell with a spit hood over his head, and failed to conduct proper wellness checks for two hours. He died by asphyxiation after vomiting into the spit hood.
Rogers’ mother, Jeannette, was in the audience on Monday to hear the presentations.
Harry Critchley, vice-chair of the East Coast Prison Justice Society and chair of the advocacy committee at the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, told the board that money would be better spent on sobering centres — safer spaces for people to sleep it off without being further criminalized.
Critchley said there are at least 12 of the centres across the country, but none east of Ontario. They can be run for as little as $450,000 a year, he said.
In the third presentation, Dr. Leah Genge of the Mobile Outreach Street Health (MOSH) at the North End Community Health Centre, Direction 180, and the Spryfield Medical Centre, asked the board to invest in managed alcohol programs.
Those programs are more of an “upstream” approach, Genge said, designed to stop people from being publicly intoxicated in the first place. The programs provide people with alcoholism controlled doses of alcohol through the day while preventing severe intoxication. They’re designed for people most at risk — those experiencing homelessness or using non-beverage alcohol like mouthwash.
The board didn’t make motions related to any of the three presentations during Monday’s meeting.