Two Black men who tried to report a crime to Edmonton police — but instead ended up pepper sprayed, handcuffed and told they were lucky they hadn’t been shot — were victims of racial discrimination, a tribunal has found.
Late last month, the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal issued a decision in the case of Yousef John and Caesar Judianga, who along with roommate Harry Lado tried to detain a woman they say threw a rock through the window of Lado’s wife’s car early May 5, 2017.
The three men — who are South Sudanese — went to confront the woman, with Lado, a bouncer, attempting a citizen’s arrest. When police arrived, however, one of the officers, Const. Jordan Steele, sprayed all three men with pepper spray, then ordered them to the ground, where they were handcuffed.
The men say they were given only cursory medical attention while the woman, who is white, gave a statement and received personal assistance from another officer, who later gave her a ride to a friend’s house. That officer, Const. Celia Frattin, also told the men they were lucky they had been pepper sprayed because they “could have been shot.”
Police did not take a statement about the damage to Lado’s wife’s car.
“The complainants in this case were angry and upset,” tribunal member Erika Ringseis wrote in the Aug. 29 decision. “They had witnessed property damage and chased the accused they knew had thrown a rock through the car window. They had called the police, expecting the police to arrive and bring justice to them, but were instead perceived as the perpetrators of crime.”
“The complainants experienced an adverse impact, they were treated as something less, in part because of the colour of their skin,” Ringseis concluded.
In a statement, an EPS spokesperson said the service is applying for a judicial review of the tribunal decision but declined to comment further.
The Edmonton Police Association, the officers’ union, also declined to comment.
John and Judianga filed complaints against the Edmonton Police Service, as well as Steele and Frattin individually.
Ringseis dismissed the latter complaints after concluding Steele and Frattin were operating in their capacity as police officers. She found no evidence either deliberately mistreated the men because of their race.
Ringseis’s finding that the men were discriminated against hinged on the more subtle concept of “implicit” bias — which the tribunal defined as prejudices an individual holds without realizing “as they are unconsciously formed from information we are exposed to in society.”
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a University of Toronto criminologist called to testify by the complainants, said people in North America are more likely to associate Black men with criminality, danger and violence than white men.
Eric Hehman, a McGill University psychology professor who studies intergroup prejudice, testified that in stressful, ambiguous situations like the one the officers encountered, white police officers “will be more likely to interpret the situation according to stereotypes, such as Black males being aggressive and ‘bad,’” the tribunal decision summarized.