“It was absolutely insane. I was in shock,” student Lydia Chan said while describing the scene in the lobby outside the student pub at the University of Windsor in the early morning of January 20. “It was absolutely insane how many police there were. … People being pushed against walls. People on the floor.”
Chan is one of a group of students who are calling for an external investigation into allegations of police misconduct at a student event at the University of Windsor. The group — coined Students Against Anti-Black Racism — alleges that students were harassed, subjected to racial slurs, assaulted, and intimidated by the officers attempting to evacuate the student pub after a party that was mainly attended by African-Canadian students.
However, despite the seriousness of the allegations, no formal complaints have been filed with police. David Tanovich, a law professor at the university, said that students had little faith in the complaint system, which involves police investigating themselves. “If you speak to any lawyer dealing with suing the police, they will telling you that there is no faith in the complaint process and can be damaging to later efforts.”
Chan has not filed a police complaint. “I’m not wiling to put myself out there. A lot of people are afraid,” she said. Tanovich said that the students are weighing their options and are considering bringing their complaints to the human rights commission.
Staff sergeant Ed McNorton confirmed that 26 officers were dispatched to the university campus after reports of fights breaking out in the pub. There were also two campus security guards and two off-duty officers at the event. “The fear was that it would get out of control because there was a large number of people at the event,” he said.
But that is a very different scenario than what Chan remembers. She said that the only altercation in the pub was between two women and never got to the level of physical violence. The women argued but were always feet apart from each other and the off-duty cops and campus security did not intervene, according to Chan.
“The first incident that happened physically was when the officer detained a man,” Chan alleged. She claims that she saw a police officer physically assault a male who was pinned to the ground after the man brushed away the hand of an officer who was attempting to evacuate the building. According to Chan, the man received at least eight blows to the head although he had his hands raised and was saying, “Okay, okay.” She said his head was bleeding and he was not struggling.
McNorton said he hasn’t seen evidence in police reports that officers behaved inappropriately. “There were arrests made and force is justified because the people arrested were resisting arrest,” he said.
McNorton said that two people, one male and one female, have been charged with resisting arrest, assaulting an officer, and obstructing justice. The man originally gave the officers a fake name and claimed to be a student, which is not accurate, according to McNorton. One other male was arrested and charged with breach of the peace, but charges were later dropped.
The alleged assault Chan witnessed was only one part of the situation she is concerned about. When she left the area, she came across the scene described above, where she claims she saw a number of students pinned up against walls and to the floor. “People were pissed off and wouldn’t leave the building and were asking why people were being detained,” Chan said.
Chan says that she took out her cell phone to videotape one man being pinned to the wall, but an officer approached her and threatened to arrest her if she taped the scene. Chan obeyed. Chan also says that when she later asked a police officer for his badge number he walked away.
Chan’s story is in line with a number of complaints from students that their cell phones were confiscated for videotaping and taking photos of the incident. The only cell phone video that has been brought forward is posted on Facebook and YouTube. The video shows a shadowy struggle but it is not clear whether the two men being detained were resisting arrest or if the police were using excessive force.
McNorton said that there was nothing in police reports about confiscating cell phones. He suggested that it would be unusual for officers to do this. “It is quite legal to have [cell phones] and it is quite legal to record anything as long as they aren’t interfering with police doing their jobs,” he said.
McNorton said that there is an investigator assigned to the case to look into whether cell phones were confiscated and other concerns. But a full investigation doesn’t seem likely at this point. “We haven’t had any complaints. We don’t have an investigation on file about excessive force because no one has stepped forward. We do have a process if we do receive complaints.”
Chan believes that the incident was racially motivated. She pointed out that there was an event the evening before hosted by a different ethnic group that did not require the number of police present on January 20. “I’m not quite sure why there had to be 30 officers. I don’t know why every officer on duty on a Saturday night was at our school,” Chan said.
Paul Ross, president of the University of Windsor, sent a statement to Students Against Anti-Black Racism Tuesday. “While issues of racial discrimination are endemic in our society, they must not be tolerated on a university campus and especially not at the University of Windsor,” he stated. “As I have said publicly on several occasions recently, in response to incidents of racism and homophobia on campus, if a university cannot be a model for tolerance and inclusion, I really worry for our society. “ Ross pledged to work with the students and police to resolve the allegations. The students’ association also released a statement in support.
McNorton maintains that the incident was not racially motivated. “It wasn’t a racial incident,” he said. “The incident had absolutely nothing to do with race. It was about the behavior of a few people.”