Students at the University of Windsor are filing a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission this week alleging Windsor police officers were influenced by racism when they broke up an on-campus party in January. The group Students Against Anti-Black Racism says 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. Police say that there is no evidence that officers did anything untoward, that police were called to the scene because fights had broken out at the club, and that race was irrelevant to police actions.
Three months after the original incident, university president Ross Paul has also filed a complaint with the police department. On April 10, Paul called for a full investigation. Paul’s letter to police chief Gary Smith questioned the large police presence and alleged use of a police dog for crowd control.
The complaints stem from a Caribbean-themed party held January 20 called Pasa Pasa. More than 25 police officers responded when school security guards called for assistance clearing the building. A YouTube video shows police officers pinning a struggling male student to the floor while other students yell. There is also a police dog on site. Student say the dog was used to intimidate them.
A number of students were also arrested and detained overnight. Two students were later charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer.
See the video here:
“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.”
Although the incident occurred in late January (we previously covered the story here), this week’s complaints are the first to be filed formally. 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.”
“I’m not wiling to put myself out there. A lot of people are afraid,” Chan said, when interviewed shortly after the incident.
University president Paul is calling for an external investigation by the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services, rather than an internal investigation. The commission’s mandate is to ensure police act in a fair manner and are accountable. Paul believes this outside investigation would help restore students’ trust in the complaint process.
Paul also released a memo to the university community last week that urged the students to file complaints and laid out steps for resolving the issue on campus. “Not surprisingly, police and student versions of the events of the evening of January 19/20 are not exactly the same,” he wrote. “However, I have found the many student accounts of the evening to be credible and supportive of the assertion that there was police over-reaction to the problems encountered and that the numbers of police (26 at least) and the presence of a police dog contributed as much to the difficulties of the evening as to their resolution.”
In an interview with Maclean’s in February, 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.
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, posted on Facebook and YouTube, is the one above. 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.
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.
But 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.”