‘I was picked out and hunted down’: African Nova Scotian man details encounter with police at human rights board of inquiry

·5 min read

An African Nova Scotian man says he avoids going out on his work breaks after being “picked out and hunted down” by police one morning in early 2017 and that the incident has since prevented him from getting growth opportunities at his workplace.

“It’s a shame, but I don’t want to go to Vandal Doughnuts, I barely want to go outside on Gottingen Street,” Gyasi Symonds said at an independent human rights board of inquiry in Halifax on Thursday.

“I can’t even enjoy any type of quality of life outside of my workplace now because I have to be paranoid that I’m going to be targeted by police.”

Symonds said the incident occurred around 8 a.m. on Jan. 24, 2017.

That morning, he left the Department of Community Services’ office at 2131 Gottingen St., where he works as an income assistance case worker, to grab coffee at The Nook on Gottingen.

Symonds said he jaywalked on his way to the cafe, trailing behind four white female staff from his office building that did the same.

But, he said it was only him, a visibly Black man, that was approached by police for jaywalking.

He said two police officers “blocked” him when he approached The Nook, questioned him about jaywalking, there was “a bit of back-and-forth” and the officers didn’t give him a ticket at that point.

Then, on his way back to work, Symonds took a crosswalk and “there was no jaywalking,” he said, contesting details from a police report on the incident.

“They said that a white van or a bus almost collided with me or slammed on its brakes. That didn’t happen,” Symonds added.

After returning to his office building, he went to his desk to drink his coffee and continue on with his work.

About 10 minutes later, Symonds said he received a message notifying him that the police were in the building and wanted him to come down to the lobby. He then went down and met the two police officers who wanted to issue him a ticket for jaywalking.

“At the time, I didn’t even know what to think. I was so confused what was even happening. My heart was beating fast, I’m pretty sure I was sweating,” Symonds recalled.

Symonds said the officers proceeded to ask him for his ID and one was “aggressive” and threatening to arrest him, so he rushed to grab his ID and provided it to them. He said he didn’t yell, again contesting the police report, and tried his best to de-escalate the situation.

He then received a ticket.

Throughout the incident, Symonds said “multiple clients and people who work in the building” such as commissionaire Carolyn Brody were in the lobby, watching the encounter unfold. During the tail end of the interaction, Tracy Embrett, his district manager at the time, was there.

“For some reason, I was picked out and hunted down … and I was pursued like I was a fugitive. It was really extreme,” said Symonds.

Symonds said he believes he was targeted because of his race, his gender and that the police officers assumed he was a “Black person that was on income assistance from the area.” He called the incident an example of systemic racism.

“It’s definitely not about jaywalking. It’s about humiliation based on race and humiliating Black men seems to be a regular thing when it comes to law enforcement and policing. This is just one example,” he said, pointing to the Scot Wortley report that found Black people in Halifax are six times more likely to be street checked by police than white people.

Symonds added the police officers “went out of their way” to humiliate him in the lobby and could’ve instead handled the incident in a “lot of different ways (that are) professional.”

People spread “rumours and gossip” about him in his office for months after the incident, according to Symonds, which he said “damaged” his employment opportunities at the Department of Community Services, where he had worked for seven years at the time.

“The effects of that (incident) have trickled down to my career and my career opportunities have been limited because of that,” he said, noting he’s applied for positions in the department after the incident but has never gotten an interview.

“The whole interaction was absolutely terrifying, embarrassing, humiliating. I would never treat another human like that.”

Symonds initially made a complaint through the Halifax Regional Police, but said he missed the six-month deadline for his complaint to be considered. That’s what led him to make a complaint through the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.

He ended up paying off the ticket for the summary offence when he was paying off other fees for his car, he said, because he didn’t have time to fight it as his life got busy as a single father.

Symonds said he wants his case to shed light on an issue that many Black people face in Halifax and Nova Scotia at large.

“Part of me being here today is not just to outline my situation, but it’s just to outline street checks in general and just the harassment that happened to me is not an isolated event,” he said.

“I’m one of the rare people who have the courage to speak up about what happened.”

Representing the police and the Halifax Regional Municipality, lawyer Karen MacDonald repeatedly questioned why Symonds didn’t include the initial interaction he had with police in his human rights complaint. He said “it’s within the documents” and that “it’s part of the narrative.”

“If there's something I miswrote or stated slightly backwards, that's all that it is,” he later said.

MacDonald also questioned whether Symonds videotaped the incident in the lobby, referring to a conversation he had with an NSHRC representative on May 8, 2019 that said he did. He said he didn’t have video of the interaction.

Brody, Embrett and one of the Halifax Regional Police officers will testify on Friday at 9:30 a.m.

Noushin Ziafati, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle Herald