Tribunal orders Edmonton police to pay $80,000 to Black men pepper sprayed after reporting break-in

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Edmonton police have been ordered to pay $80,000 in damages to two Black men who found themselves pepper sprayed and forced to the ground while attempting to report a crime.

The Alberta Human Rights Tribunal issued a remedy decision earlier this month in the case of Yousef John and Caesar Judianga, two men of South Sudanese origin who were arrested after calling 911 in 2017.

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Human rights commission member Erika Ringseis found the two were each entitled to $40,000 in general damages for “injury to dignity,” as well as compensation for lost wages, medication and damaged clothing, plus interest.

Ringseis stopped short of ordering the Edmonton Police Service to formally apologize, noting EPS is appealing her initial decision finding the treatment of the men breached Section 4 of the Alberta Human Rights Act.

“I encourage the respondent (EPS) to provide a letter of regret to the complainants, but in light of the (decision) being under judicial review, any words required by this tribunal … would likely lack the sincerity needed to provide a benefit to the complainants.”

John and Judianga called police on May 5, 2017, after a woman allegedly threw a rock through the window of a car belonging to the wife of their roommate, Harry Lado. Lado attempted to detain the woman until police arrived, relying on his experience with citizen’s arrests as a bouncer.

Police arrived, but instead of arresting the woman, Const. Jordan Steele sprayed all three men with pepper spray, ordered them to the ground and handcuffed them. As the men writhed in pain, the alleged burglar — a white woman — gave a statement to police and was given a ride to a friend’s house by another officer, Const. Celia Frattin.

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Frattin told the men they were “lucky” to have only been pepper sprayed, noting they “could have been shot.” The woman claimed someone else broke the window and was never charged.

Ringseis found it more likely than not that race played a role in how John and Judianga were treated  — including the “rapid” use of pepper spray without warning, the lack of response to their requests for help after being pepper sprayed, and the “disparity” in their treatment compared to the accused.

The officers were not found personally liable, however, because they were acting in their capacity as police. Ringseis found no evidence either deliberately mistreated the men because of their race. Instead, she concluded “implicit” bias — prejudices that are “unconsciously formed from information we are exposed to in society” about people of different races — was at play.

John and Judianga asked that EPS be ordered to pay them $50,000 each. Both described feeling more withdrawn and cautious after the incident. John has since left Edmonton because he felt “targeted” by police. He described an incident in which he was pulled over while driving his own car because it had allegedly been reported stolen, which he felt was “intended to scare or intimidate him.”

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Judianga said the arrest made him feel “less than human.”

Ringseis said $40,000 for John and Judianga was appropriate compensation based on previous case law and their physical and mental injuries.

Nnam Okoye, the lawyer for both men, told Postmedia his clients are “generally OK” with the outcome, despite the length of time the case took to resolve.

“It is important for my clients that the EPS is held to some account,” he said.

Okoye also hailed the tribunal’s recognition of implicit bias and its ability “to influence split-second decisions of the police (including exercises of discretion) in evolving, fluid, or ambiguous situations involving Black men.”

“I think this should also apply to situations involving all people of colour, including First Nations, Metis, and Inuit. Police officers should be sufficiently trained to be constantly aware of this blind spot.”

An EPS spokesperson said the service is aware of the latest decision and is applying for judicial review. “As such, the EPS is not in a position to comment further on the decision at this time.”

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