'I was accosted on the street': Professor files complaint against New Westminster police
NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. -- Jovia Radheshwar was on his way to meet a friend for coffee when he heard a couple of police officers shouting.
“The first time they asked me I ignored it because I didn’t assume it was me,” he told CTV News Vancouver.
The second time he heard them call, he said, “it was an accosting, I was accosted onto street. I was told like, ‘Hey you, you must stop.’”
Radheshwar said police asked him for his ID, but at the time he had only his smart watch to pay for his coffee and his house keys with him.
“I told them I didn’t have that, and at that point they asked me for an ID a second time,” he said, adding that he lived around the corner and was meeting a friend for coffee.
“And then they asked me if I was a person named Abdul,” said Radheshwar. “One of the officers, the one who asked me if I was Abdul, then doubled down and said, ‘Come on man, you look exactly like him.’ Those were his exact words.”
Radheshwar said that made him upset. He said again that wasn’t him, that he was meeting a friend and turned to leave. The officers left as well.
“It just shocked me that I was racially profiled – in this outfit, no less, with flip flops, not able to run anywhere,” he told CTV News.
The New Westminster Police Department tells a slightly different story, calling this a case of mistaken identity.
Staff Sgt. Stuart Jette told CTV News the officers were “trying to arrest a male on four charges related to a domestic violence investigation.”
He said one of the officers had dealt with the man before, and the other had looked at a photo to “familiarize himself on how (the suspect) looked.”
When Radheshwar turned around, “officers immediately realized this wasn’t the person they were looking for,” Jette said. “They explained the mistake and the gentleman was allowed to go on with his day.”
This is not how Radheshwar remembers it. He said when he called the police department to file a complaint, he was told the two officers had not seen a photo, and were working off a written description.
“I said, ‘How can I look exactly like a written description?” He recalls.
In an emailed response to him from an officer, the description of the suspect given to police is: “He is a middle eastern male, medium complexion, approximately 6’0” tall, thick black shorter hair and medium build."
“That’s like half the dudes that live in these buildings right here,” said Radheshwar in response.
Jette told CTV News the officers had in fact seen a photo, and that perhaps the person he spoke with was unaware of that.
“It’s never our intention to have somebody upset or feel bad after an interaction with the police,” said Jette. “We apologize if that’s what happened here. This was just merely a case of mistaken identity.”
“What happened to Jovian is incredibly disturbing,” said Harsha Walia, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association. “Unfortunately, it’s not shocking because we know police often racially profile particularly people of colour based on vague descriptions.”
Walia told CTV News if officers did in fact immediately recognize Radheshwar was not the man they were looking for, they should have stopped questioning him right there.
“It’s questionable in terms of where the truth lies in the story,” she said. “If it is true that they believed he was not the person, then it leads to further questions why they bothered stopping and questioning him at all after that.”
Walia is calling for an end to the scope and scale of policing power as well as things like street checks, something Vancouver’s city council voted to end last month.
“These kinds of arbitrary stops, when they’re stopping people and asking them for their ID … we know when police are asking you for your ID, you don’t feel like that is a voluntary interaction you can walk away from, right?” said Walia, in reference to the notion that compliance with street checks is voluntary.
“In this case, this was not a street check,” Jette said. “The officers actually thought they were arresting somebody as part of a criminal investigation.”
He went on to say that suspect has been arrested and charged.
Radheshwar has filed a complaint with the Office of the Police Complaints Commission. For him, as a professor at Douglas College, he said he felt speaking out was his duty because not everyone can.
“There’s a lot of dudes who look like me who live in this neighbourhood who aren’t college professors,” he said. “Many of them are immigrants from many parts of the world.”