A teenage girl taken to the ground by an Edmonton police officer who mistook her for a suspect says she is not happy with the police chief’s response to the incident.
Haylie Nahamko-White says she was tackled by an Edmonton Police Service constable who emerged from an unmarked car after dark.
Nahamko-White, 17, told Postmedia the man said he was a police officer, but she could not see any markings on his clothing and did not understand why he was coming after her. Fearing he might be a kidnapper, she ran.
The officer eventually tackled her, she said, leaving her with cuts, scrapes and bruises all over her body.
Police say the incident is being investigated by the service’s professional standards branch, which could lead to disciplinary charges against the officer. Chief Dale McFree, however, told Global News, “When police ask you to stop more than one time, you know, it’s really against the law to run.”
Nahamko-White said that response ignores the difficulty she had recognizing the men as police.
“I’d like the chief of police to take accountability, instead of also blaming me,” she said.
‘Rather be hit than trafficked’
On Nov. 13, Nahamko-White took the bus to Londonderry Mall after working a late shift as a lifeguard. She was on the phone with her boyfriend, who she planned to meet around 10:30 p.m. for a ride home. As she went to cross 137 Avenue, a burgundy SUV pulled up and rolled down the window. Nahamko-White pulled out her AirPod to hear the man inside.
“I thought they were just asking me for directions,” she said. “That’s when he said, ‘We’re police, if you run, we’ll tase you.’ I didn’t run at first, I was still on the phone with my boyfriend. So I started screaming for him.”
Police spokesperson Carolin Maran said the officers had been called to a “domestic disturbance” near 137 Avenue and 67 Street. According to Maran, officers had been told a woman at the address was refusing to leave.
“While en route to the call, two officers noticed a female matching the description of the woman,” Maran said in an email. “Uniformed officers approached the female in their unmarked police vehicle and advised her they wished to speak with her.”
Nahamko-White, however, said she couldn’t tell the men were wearing uniforms.
“I didn’t see anything, and that’s when he started stepping out of the vehicle. So I immediately took off.”
Nahamko-White ran into 137 Avenue. She looked behind her and saw the man holding what appeared to be a weapon.
“I thought I was being kidnapped,” she said. She ran towards an oncoming car. “I was kind of hoping it would hit me. My thought process was I’d rather be hit than trafficked.”
Then she remembers being grabbed from behind and hitting the ground.
“He put all his body weight on me,” she said. “All I felt was a pressure, kind of around my neck. I tried lifting my head and he put my head back down, and that’s when my nose hit the pavement.” Her lip and tooth were scratched on the asphalt.
“I started screaming, ‘Please don’t traffic me.’ I was just crying. I started saying, ‘Please, I work for the mall. I’m not a bad person.’”
She says the officer cuffed her hands behind her back, lifted her by the handcuffs and placed her in the back of the SUV. She claims he called her “stupid” for running from police.
Only then did the officer show her the EPS markings on his dark-coloured toque and jacket — a logo on the lefthand side of the toque and an emblem on his right shoulder. The officer’s chest was otherwise “completely black,” Nahamko-White said, except for some white lettering over the heart.
“I’ve never seen that uniform ever, in my entire life,” Nahamko-White said.
The officers also flashed the concealed lights on the SUV to convince her they were police, which Nahamko-White argued could have prevented the situation in the first place.
‘They arrested the wrong person’
Nahamko-White says she believes the officers realized she was not their suspect when they asked her for her birthday.
“I said ‘I’m 17 years old’ … his face completely dropped,” she said of the partner of the officer who arrested her.
Nahamko-White’s boyfriend arrived a short time later, followed by Charlene Nahamko, her mother.
Maran said the officers quickly released Nahamko-White and called their supervisor. “They acknowledged they arrested the wrong person and immediately released her from custody.”
Nahamko-White said the supervisor spoke to her “as if I was incompetent.”
“I remember him specifically saying, ‘I’m sorry, Haylie, you match the description of some really bad people.’ That’s exactly what he said to me.”
In addition to the injuries to her face, Nahamko-White has bruises on her elbows and side, and cuts and scrapes on her wrists, hands and back. “He put his body weight on one side of my hip and it’s been messed up ever since,” she said.
Nahamko-White believes officers need to do a better job identifying themselves — both through their clothing and their behaviour. Nahamko said she has since confirmed with police that the officer who arrested her daughter was wearing the EPS winter uniform.
According to a 2020 EPS report, city police have worn dark blue uniforms since 1999. The report says dark uniforms help officers blend in when concealment is needed, but the report does not address identifiability concerns in low-light environments.
Nahamko-White said police uniforms “should have at least reflective writing” to make clear who they are. She said clear, consistent uniforms are important, especially in light of the Nova Scotia mass killing, and the Edmonton incident in which a man claiming he was a police officer threatened multiple people.
She also questioned how officers decided she matched the suspect description, given she was wearing black sweats and a black hoodie — “a universal outfit that probably every single person owns.” She also has braces and was wearing her school backpack.
Nahamko-White and her mother have filed a formal complaint about the incident.
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