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Toronto Star - May 17, 2007 - Tobi Cohen, Canadian press

Peel police must pay racial profiling victim

Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal has vindicated a woman's claim that she was the victim of racial profiling by a Peel Region police officer, a precedent-setting case that could impact law enforcement practices across the country.

Jacqueline Nassiah, a black single mother, was shopping in a Mississauga, Ont., department store in February 2003 when she was stopped by a security guard and accused of stealing a bra.

The tribunal found Nassiah was victimized by a discriminatory investigation led by Peel police officer Richard Elkington, who assumed Nassiah didn't speak English, ignored videotape evidence that exonerated her and called for an additional body search when he couldn't find the item, which was worth less than $10.

The tribunal awarded Nassiah $20,000 and ordered Peel police to address the incident with increased training for officers and clear directives explaining that racial profiling is prohibited under the Human Rights Code.

"With the outcome, I see that justice has been served and I'm glad for that," a still shaken Nassiah said Thursday.

"But the fear has changed my life. I'm not the same. There's a fear."

Nassiah said she was humiliated by officers and that years later, she's still apprehensive when she sees a police car or is out shopping with her 6-year-old son.

Her lawyer, Davies Bagambiire, said it's a major coup that the tribunal not only ruled in Nassiah's favour, but also put forward ``clear and unambiguous" solutions.

"The systemic remedies will be there to teach not only this board and this officer a lesson, but to send a message to all forces in this province and to all forces across the country that they have no right engaging in racial profiling," he said.

While Ontario's criminal courts have raised the issue of racial profiling by excluding evidence obtained through the practice, this is the first time the province's Human Rights Tribunal has declared it illegal, Bagambiire said.

He said he knows of only one similar case in Halifax where the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission ruled heavyweight boxer Kirk Johnson was the victim of repeated racial profiling because he was a black man driving a Mustang.

Chief commissioner Barbara Hall said the case shows racial profiling remains a serious problem and that a judgment was necessary to highlight the injustice.

"The commission is always willing to work with police services to effect change," Hall said.  "But when such change is not forthcoming, the commission will pursue similar public-interest remedies as ordered by the tribunal in this case."

There are at least seven similar racial profiling cases currently before the tribunal and several others in the investigative stage, said Raj Dhir of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which prosecuted the case before the tribunal.

He said two of the cases involve officers from Peel Region, while the others involve a variety of police forces from across the province.

"The commission called a lot of expert evidence in this particular case on the social phenomenon of racial profiling and much of that evidence was accepted by the tribunal so I do hope that in future cases it is used as a precedent," he said.

Peel Region police spokesman J.P. Valade said the force is not prepared to comment until it has finished reviewing the decision.

Valade refused to discuss the status of Elkington's employment with the Peel police service, but Bagambiire said the officer now works for the Sudbury police department. It's not clear whether Elkington ever faced an internal disciplinary hearing in connection with the case.

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