Somalis ponder legal action against police

By Halima Mautbur

Members of Ottawa’s Somali community say police must regain their trust after incidents of alleged racism and brutality.

What’s more, some are now considering legal action against the police.

“All our youth is in jail . . . our businesses are targeted,” says Maryam Abdirahman, the co-ordinator of a women’s support line at the Carlington Community and Health Services Centre.

“We (Somalis) are trying our best to put our feet on the ground, but the police is just waiting for us at every corner.”

Abdirahman and other Somalis allege that police target them with racial profiling, harassment and they make arrests based on colour. However, many also stress that not all police officers are blameworthy.

Abdirahman was one of several Somali community leaders who met with police two weeks ago in an attempt to repair relations, which was damaged when police arrested every black man in the Somali-owned Ambassador Bar and Grill restaurant on Bank Street after a complaint about a black man with a gun.

While some were injured during the arrests, no gun was ever found and all were later released without charges. Police are currently conducting an internal investigation into the incident.

However, many Somalis, including Raage Mohamed, the executive director of the Somali Centre for Youth, Women and Community Development, say police racism occurs often.

Mohamed says that one of his biggest fears is for Somali youth, alleging that many end up in detention centres because of racial profiling.

“You cannot imagine what it does to the young mind when they come face to face against racism,” he says. “An act of prejudice is a violent act, it is inhumane ”

Mohamed is currently helping some to file complaints against the police and says a lawyer has been hired for those who want to file lawsuits.

He didn’t attend the meeting with police, saying the two sides have been talking for years and it’s now time for police to act.

However, he and others say the problem lies with the police patrolling the streets who don’t share attitudes of respect endorsed by senior police.

Mohamed’s own centre used to provide sensitivity training to new police recruits, who would come to the centre to experience the Somali culture and ask questions and listen to “how it feels on our end.”

“Some of the officers . . . I could see that person would not be the same when they go to the streets, they have a different perception,” Mohamed says.

The program ran from 1996 to 2002, but the centre can no longer afford it.

Staff Sgt. Kai Liu, manager of the Diversity and Race Relations section of the Ottawa Police, says officers receive sensitivity training in police college where they assume the role of new immigrants in an imaginary scenario to understand their experience.

Liu admits that the reputation of the Ottawa Police is “bruised” over the current allegations of racism, but he says the feedback he’s hearing is for “the bridges that have been built to continue.”

However, Abdirahman says it won’t be easy to maintain those bridges now.

“The mothers — they are crying, they are crying!” she says. “Their sons are in jail, they are harassed, they (police) are just going into their homes and they are doing whatever they like because simply they understand that this woman has a language barrier and cannot report properly.”

“If I bring you 10 to 20 Somali mothers . . . and I say, “What do you (do), call police?’ they will say, ‘police is enemy, not friend.”