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Racial profiling behind violent arrest at Vancouver Walmart: Indigenous mom
VANCOUVER -- A Lower Mainland woman is raising questions about racial profiling by Walmart security guards and Vancouver police after she and her son were accused of theft and violently arrested — even though they had a receipt.
A series of six videos taken by passersby and obtained by the Aboriginal People’s Television Network show part of the chaos outside the Grandview Highway Walmart on Mother’s Day, 2019, where Margaret Denault and her family were shopping for patio furniture.
Those videos have prompted questions from a use of force expert about the legality of police actions that day, and attention from B.C.’s Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner.
“It just escalated so fast. It was very scary,” said Denault, who is Indigenous and was 59 when the incident happened last year.
Denault said she’s coming forward now because she believes her case can shed light on the international discussion about racism in policing that was sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the violent arrest of Chief Allan Adam in northern Alberta.
She says they were leaving the Walmart with their purchases when a security guard stopped her and her son, 38-year-old Shane Robertson.
“He said, ‘What are you doing? We paid for this stuff,’” she told CTV News. “He shouldered my son and my son shouldered him back and immediately he was on the cellphone calling the police.”
She said the officers arrived and rushed to detain Robertson.
“They just wanted to detain him right away. They didn’t ask questions,” she said.
The videos begin when Robertson is on the ground. One officer yells, “Stop resisting!” and another woman screams, “He’s not resisting! Why are you hitting him?”
Robertson is howling in pain and his child, who has autism, is screaming too.
He is being held down by two officers, and a third arrives and knees him in the back.
Meanwhile, two more officers have a handcuff on Denault, who is sitting in the driver's seat of her car, refusing to leave.
“I didn’t do nothing, I paid for my stuff, and you are acting this way,” Denault says on the video. She asks the officers to look at the Walmart surveillance video.
“This is an investigation of assault,” says one officer.
“Why would she assault anyone, she has her grandson here,” another woman says.
Denault said she didn’t want to get out of the car because she saw what had happened to her son.
“I wouldn’t move because I know that if I get out there’s a high chance they’re going to throw me on the ground and handcuff me,” she said.
Robertson is taken into the police car and he says he spent the night in a cell.
The Vancouver police said they got a call that a man spat at a loss prevention officer and assaulted another one. Const. Tania Visintin said in a statement, “The suspect was very confrontational. He refused to co-operate with the investigation and refused to listen or follow direction from members. Members attempted to handcuff him to prevent the aggression from escalating and to arrest him for the alleged assaults on the two store staff members.”
The VPD didn’t mention Denault’s arrest in the first statement. CTV News asked about that, and in a second statement, Visintin said, “Officers repeatedly told the mother they needed to speak to her son to investigate the assault. In order to be able to continue their investigation, officers temporarily placed the mother in handcuffs, as she was obstructing them from the investigation.”
After the melee, no charges were laid, Visintin says. “The security staff decided not to participate in pursuing charges.”
An opinion by Orville Nickel, a use of force expert, obtained by CTV News says, “The reactions of the police may have been motivated by the security guard and without any supporting investigation. A more comprehensive investigation was needed to find the true circumstances in this matter before making a decision to arrest.”
Without that first step, it’s not clear whether officers had the legal right to use force, he writes in the opinion.
“To focus totally on the mother and son in this investigation, with arrest procedures, is probably not legally justified… if no legal authority to arrest exists then the arrest and handcuffing… could constitute assault,” he writes.
A spokesperson for the Office of the Police Complaints Commission, which oversees municipal police discipline in the province, said the agency is looking into the incident.
A spokesperson for Walmart didn’t provide any surveillance video or documentation from the incident. Adam Grachnik provided a statement saying the company doesn’t tolerate racism and discrimination.
“Walmart is committed to providing a safe and inclusive environment for our associates and our customers. Celebrating diversity and fostering inclusivity is an integral part of the Walmart culture and we are proud to reflect the diverse communities we serve through our associates,” Grachnik said.