The cop, the children, and the black Muslim mother


The cop, the children, and the black Muslim mother

Last weekend the Toronto Star featured a lengthy front page report about a young black, Muslim woman’s 2016 interaction with members of the Toronto police force. Amanda Henry is a single parent of three, two of the younger ones (girls aged 11 and 9) were at the centre of the interaction which has become the subject of a lawsuit filed by Henry against the police.

The lawsuit alleges that Henry was racially profiled, was discriminated against, wrongfully arrested and assaulted. The claims are yet to be tested in court, but regardless of the outcome, the newspaper report should be required reading and rereading by those who have a professional interest in such matters as well as ordinary folk who must navigate an increasingly socially and culturally complicated City of Toronto.

The gist of the story is as follows: Ms. Henry left her two daughters in the apartment and went off to buy groceries. She received a phone message from a policeman saying that her children were ok but she should return home immediately; she was greeted by a policeman who was in the apartment with her two daughters. He was speaking on the phone with a children’s aid society social worker.

Knowledge and ignorance of the law, arrogance, “attitude”, and doggedness set the stage for a testy relationship between a black Muslim women and a white cop. The relationship quickly spiraled downward. 

Ms. Henry, whose father is a former Toronto police officer, knew the law – she could leave her 11-year-old daughter unattended (the police didn’t), she knew the police had no lawful right to enter her home (the police didn’t). It also appeared that the social worker to whom the officer was speaking did not know the law either because according to the officer’s account, the social worker said that he felt that a child under 12 should not be left unattended. Then to ensure that the downward spiral would quicken, the officer allegedly asked Henry, who was clearly dressed in Muslim clothing, if she was drinking. He then admitted that he opened the fridge and there was no food in it.

In mathematics, if one makes the wrong assumption at the outset, everything that follows will be incorrect. Such was the case with the policeman. Every step he took after believing that a child cannot be left alone if she is below a certain age, in this case 12, was illegal. He began asking their names and other questions, which he was not entitled to do unless there was an investigation. But there was nothing to investigate because no illegal act was committed. Henry knew that and explained to the policeman that her father was an ex-cop to whom she was speaking on the phone at the time. Her father told her that given the circumstances she could leave any time. The officer left the apartment when he was asked by Henry.

The police followed her as she left her apartment with her children, and insisted that they provide their names because he didn’t know who she was and that she was taking the children away. Now contact is made – she said he “grabbed” her arm and would not let go, he said he “placed” a hand on her arm. She ended up with a torn rotator cuff in her right shoulder.

Even though nothing has been proven in court, on the face of it, the police never got this one right. And in fact, the Ontario Office of the Independent Police Director (OIPRD), agreed with Henry’s complaint that police had no lawful reason to enter her home, no lawful reason to detain her, and used excessive force. The OIPRD recommended that misconduct charges be laid against the officer. The police will not comment on the result of the internal investigation.

From what we know it seems that the Toronto police is on the hook for this, with the children’s aid earning an “assist” on this one. However, we should be very careful about drawing any further conclusions especially when it comes to the issue of colour, ethnicity or religion.

When the story is properly aired in court we will find that some of our suspicions will be shown to be true. We may also find that the worst the policeman did was to act clumsily and arrogantly which led to a number of errors and abuses that were totally unnecessary and avoidable. We will also find that the Toronto also police failed in their duty to discipline the officer.

But with respect to the extent of the officer’s reason for acting as he did, there’s no telling what was in his heart when he was faced with two young girls (regardless of their skin colour) left on their own. He exercised bad judgment to be sure, but no one should envy the dilemma he faced when he knocked on that door.