An Abbotsford man says he thought a plainclothes police officer was going to shoot him after he was stopped at gunpoint at his workplace around 4 a.m. in mid-June. The man stopped by police, Navee Thandi, took a video of the interaction, but an officer seized his phone and deleted the recording.
Thandi, who is South Asian, says he feared for his life during the encounter and doubts he would have been as aggressively confronted if he had been white.
“Especially with all this stuff going on, I thought officers would have been trained a lot better to deal with this sort of stuff,” he told a supervising officer in a meeting shortly after the incident.
In that meeting, the supervisor confirmed the general details of the gunpoint stop, apologized for deleting the video of the interaction, and told Thandi the incident had triggered multiple investigations of officers’ actions.
“We did jump on this as soon as it happened and it is concerning to us and important for our officers to know that you can’t be doing this type of thing, deleting videos,” APD deputy chief Paulette Freill told The News recently. “We are very concerned about this and it will be looked into.”
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Thandi, who works in an industrial park north of Abbotsford International Airport, was walking between two buildings at his job site, looking at his phone, when he heard a voice yelling at him to get on the ground. When he turned around, he was alarmed to see a plainclothes police officer pointing a gun at him.
Police would later tell Thandi that officers were in the area after a report of a possible break-and-enter into a commercial building in the area.
Thandi, 40, told The News that the hands of the officer with the gun “were shaking real bad,” and that her nervous demeanor increased his own concern – particularly given increased awareness of police incidents that end in civilian deaths.
“She was real nervous, she was making me nervous,” he said.
“You’re freaking me out,” Thandi said he told the officer.
While laying on the ground, Thandi started recording his situation on his cellphone.
Thandi said other officers soon arrived on the scene, including one with a beanbag gun.
“He said ‘I’m going to shoot you [with the beanbag gun] if you don’t put [the phone] down,’ ” Thandi told The News. “I guess he got really mad at me for me asking why I was being arrested.”
Thandi did put the phone down, and the first officer moved it away from Thandi. Another officer then kicked it further away – Thandi says, “maliciously.”
Thandi told police he worked at the site. But instead, he was taken to a cruiser, where an officer read him his rights and told him he was being detained for suspicion of break-and-enter.
He waited in the cruiser while the officers confirmed that Thandi did, in fact, work at the property. After they did so, Thandi’s handcuffs were removed and he was released from custody.
But when Thandi got his phone back and looked on his phone for the video, it was gone.
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The next day, Thandi’s phone rang. On the other end of the line was APD Staff Sgt. Crystal Jack, a patrol supervisor who wanted to arrange a meeting.
In that meeting, which Thandi recorded with Jack’s knowledge, Jack confirmed the video had been intentionally and inappropriately deleted. She said at least two investigations had already begun, and confirmed that Thandi had been stopped at gunpoint because of the break-and-enter in the area.
(Thandi told Jack at the time that he would be contacting the media about the incident. He has provided that recording to The News.)
Thandi had “every right” to record police officers during the interaction, Jack told him. She confirmed that the officer consciously and deliberately deleted the video, then told her sergeant that she had done so while still at the scene.
“The officer came forward and said ‘I think I just made a really big mistake.’”
Jack was unequivocal that it was wrong for the officer to have done so.
“That’s not OK. That video is your own personal property and it’s not something the police can delete without your permission.”
While she didn’t speak to some of the specifics detailed by Thandi, Jack said she recognized that such an incident can be “scary,” and acknowledged that he had become emotional when talking about the episode over the phone.
Much of the meeting involved Jack walking Thandi through the complaints process. She told him the Abbotsford Police Department had already started its own internal investigation and had also notified the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner, which will oversee a separate probe.
“There will be a full investigation into the whole thing,” Thandi was told.
Jack also offered to have the APD’s civilian forensic staff try to recover the deleted video from Thandi’s phone. She said that video belongs to Thandi, but would assist investigators. Thandi did turn his phone over to the APD, but was told that the video could not be retrieved.
Of the manner in which Thandi was stopped, Jack told Thandi: “It’s definitely something that needs to be looked at. I wasn’t there so I can’t speak to it.”
In the meeting, Thandi was appreciative of Jack, and noted at least two of the officers on the scene were “nice.” But he told her the incident was frightening, and showed a need for better training for police officers .
“It should have never happened. The way they did that. I swear to God I was going to get shot. And the way for him when I was on the ground for him to say he was going to shoot me again… It shouldn’t have happened.”
“I am really upset.”
Although he was calm throughout the meeting, Thandi’s voice began to strain when he talked about the incident and its emotional impact.
“The way it happened, it scared the f——— s—- out of me. It’s not right. It’s not right at all. It’s not right,” he said. “I wasn’t hiding in any bushes, I was out in the open in a well-lit area, they never asked me what I was doing there, strictly came out with guns, threatening to shoot me, plain and simple.”
Thandi later told The News that while the officer declared “Abbotsford Police,” he wasn’t sure if that was the case at first because she was wearing street clothes and didn’t display her badge. He also said he didn’t think the incident would have occurred the way it did if he had been white.
“I know it was because of colour,” he said. “It would have been different if it had been a [white] person walking around there doing the same thing I was doing. A person would have never pulled out their gun. It would have been straight questions instead of straight ‘I’m going to shoot you.’”
Freill, Abbotsford deputy police chief, said she couldn’t talk about the specifics of the incident because they are under investigation.
But she said that “In today’s world and this environment today … our safety and public safety is paramount and in the middle of the night when you’re in a dark field or a dark area and you have someone where there’s a crime that’s just occurred, our officers are trained to be safe and look out for themselves. And use of force is never pretty, whether it’s justified or not.”
“It never looks pretty, but that’s use of force.”
APD spokesperson Sgt. Judy Bird said firearms are drawn relatively rarely.
“That is not a daily occurrence for the Abbotsford Police Department. There is a [perceived] serious situation when an officer has to pull their gun,” she said.
Bird provided The News a statement by APD training officer Const. Alex Odinstov:
“Abbotsford Police Officers are extensively trained in Use of Force and Tactics. Each year, officers attend training that simulates realistic situations they may encounter during their tour of duty. If the officer believes based on information or observations that a suspect may present a threat of bodily harm or death, the officer is trained to challenge the suspect from a position of safety. This often means repositioning to a better place of cover, or challenging the suspect with a weapon in an effort to de-escalate their behaviour.”
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The frequency with which officers draw and point their guns has risen significantly in 2020, according to police intervention figures obtained by The News. Through mid-July, APD officers had drawn their guns 50 times and pointed them in 38 of those occasions. That puts APD officers on pace to draw their guns more than 90 times in 2020, much more often than any other recent year. In previous years, guns have been drawn and pointed about once a week. When guns are drawn, police officers usually point them; only in about one-quarter of firearm interventions are weapons not pointed at suspects.
Bird wrote in an email that use-of-force guidelines haven’t significantly changed recently, but that the department couldn’t publicly say whether there had been a tactical shift.
Another investigation is already being conducted into a July incident in which two innocent Mexican farmworkers were detained at gunpoint outside of their accommodations in Abbotsford. Police were looking for a smuggling suspect at the time. One of the workers was allegedly punched and kicked, and the Mexican consulate has asked for a full review of the incident and officers’ actions.
As for the role race may play in police decisions, Bird said those possibilities is one reason officers go through an extensive vetting process before being hired.
“That comes down to character,” she said.
When The News suggested that it’s now widely believed that race can subconsciously influence the split-second decisions of average people, and asked about what the APD does to minimize those factors, Bird said members regularly undergo diversity and bias-awareness training.
Bird added that every police file is reviewed by a superior, members rarely attend calls alone, and each patrol shift has at least two supervisors on the road monitoring police activity.
Watch abbynews.com next week for a special report on the Abbotsford Police’s diversity, use-of-force and street checks, including details on just how often police draw their guns, discharge Tasers and employ physical takedowns.
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