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N.S. police officer, wife launching complaint for 'driving while Black' stop by RCMP

HALIFAX — A Halifax police superintendent and his wife, a lawyer, said Friday they were launching a complaint alleging the RCMP stopped their vehicle and ordered the officer out at gunpoint based on racial profiling.

HALIFAX — A Halifax police superintendent and his wife, a lawyer, said Friday they were launching a complaint alleging the RCMP stopped their vehicle and ordered the officer out at gunpoint based on racial profiling.

The RCMP, however, issued a statement later in the day saying the couple's car matched the description of a suspect in a shooting incident, and they said the officers "ensured a safe outcome to a very stressful situation."

Dean Simmonds, a 20-year-veteran of the Halifax police, and Angela Simmonds, a lawyer who was acclaimed this week as the provincial Liberal candidate for Preston, say the incident of "driving while Black" occurred as they were on their way to buy groceries in their community of Preston at about 12:30 p.m. on July 4.

Angela Simmonds, reached by telephone Friday, declined further comment but said she and her husband stand by the details they provided in a news release issued by the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition.

The coalition quotes the couple as saying that when they were stopped, one of the Mounties ordered the 45-year-old police superintendent, who was wearing plain clothes, out of the vehicle with his hands up, while the other officer pointed a carbine rifle in his direction.

It was only after several minutes, once Dean Simmonds managed to explain who he was, that the two officers told the couple there had been a report of shots fired in the area. The officers "did not explain if Dean and Angela fit a description of the alleged perpetrators," the release says. "The experience was traumatic for the couple, who feared for their lives."

Angela Simmonds is quoted saying the case was an example of the way Black people continue "to be subjected to inhumane treatment and are regarded as dangerous, dishonest, guilty criminals." The release calls the incident "another brutal reminder of the broader problem of systemic racism within the RCMP, and it further erodes the trust between police and Black communities in Nova Scotia."

The couple say they intend to file a complaint with the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission "and want a full investigation into the incident."

Cpl. Lisa Croteau, a spokeswoman for the RCMP, said in an email Friday that the suspect vehicle fleeing the scene was reported to be a white SUV, with an out of province licence plate and tinted windows, which she said matched the Simmonds' vehicle.

"The high-risk traffic stop involved a vehicle that matched the suspect vehicle description, with an out of province licence plate, that was coming from the direction of the nearby community," Croteau said.

"Halifax District Operations Officers have examined the traffic stop and the actions of our members. From the information we have gathered, the traffic stop and the tactics employed by our members were in line with RCMP policy and training. Additionally, our members ensured a safe outcome to a very stressful situation, through a professional and measured response."

The RCMP, she added, have received a complaint related to the traffic stop, which they "take very seriously." 

"The complaint has been provided to our professional responsibilities unit and a public complaint file has been opened for thorough investigation. Should new information come to light through this investigation, we will take any and all appropriate actions."

Dean Simmonds says in the release he has been dedicated to addressing the mistrust between the Black community and police. "I truly believed that my core values, leadership and respect for my community, my job and fellow officers would contribute to positive changes within community policing," he said.

Heather Fairbairn, spokesperson for Nova Scotia Justice Minister Randy Delorey, issued an email statement Friday on behalf of the minister. “The allegations are certainly concerning," Delorey said. "I understand a complaint is being filed, so it is important that I allow that process to unfold. As this relates to an ongoing police investigation it would be inappropriate for me to comment further."  

Improper policing of Black Nova Scotians has an extensive history, said Vanessa Fells, director of operations at the coalition. She said that for two years the coalition has been calling on the RCMP to collaborate with the group to establish an African Nova Scotian policing strategy.

"We have had absolutely no traction with it," she said. "They seem not interested. We need to stop what is currently happening and what has been happening for decades and generations. It causes trauma to our community."

The RCMP, which polices the suburbs of Halifax, was part of a study by criminologist Scot Wortley released in March 2019 that condemned the practice of street checks as creating a "disproportionate and negative'' impact on the Black community. The study found Black citizens in the Halifax region were five times more likely to be street-checked than white citizens. Street checks are the police practice of randomly stopping people, collecting personal information and storing it.

On Nov. 29, 2019, Halifax police Chief Dan Kinsella issued an apology before several hundred members of the Black community, but the RCMP has yet to issue a similar apology on the street checks issue. Kinsella said in a release Friday that the superintendent had the right to pursue a complaint as a private citizen, adding that it would be inappropriate for him to comment further.

The phrase "driving while Black" became well known in the province after a 2003 decision of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission in the case of boxer Kirk Johnson, who was repeatedly pulled over by police and once had his car seized. Johnson was pursued and his car was towed after the officer wasn't satisfied by the documents offered. A board of inquiry ruled in 2003 that Johnson's treatment was a violation of his human rights.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 16, 2021.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press