Susan Clairmont and Nicole O'Reilly
The Hamilton Spectator
(May 7, 2010)
Hamilton's police chief admits they got the wrong apartment and the wrong man when officers burst into the home of an unsuspecting refugee from Myanmar who was left terrified and bloodied.
Heavily armed officers were looking for an alleged cocaine dealer who lives in a different unit in the same apartment building as 58-year-old Po La Hay and his two adult children.
Hay was home around 9 p.m. Tuesday readying things for work the next day at a garden centre when he claims police broke down his door and aimed guns at his head.
"I didn't even have a chance to say any words," he said through interpreter Lerwah Lobo.
Terrified, Hay collapsed to the ground. Officers handcuffed him and asked if he was the man listed on their warrant, he said. When he said, "No, my name is Po La," Hay claims officers smashed his face on the floor and began kicking him. He was scared to move, believing they might be robbers despite the uniforms.
Telling the story, Hay smiles politely and shakes a little. He has stitches above his left eye, a bruised and bloodied nose and red marks along his back and side. He said one rib is broken and he will have to return to doctors for more tests. He looks less than 100 pounds.
"Our officers attended an address to apprehend a party wanted for trafficking narcotics," said Chief Glenn De Caire. "The person we wanted was in the apartment next door. All the right investigative steps were taken and in the end, it was wrong ... We accept responsibility."
De Caire said he met yesterday with members of Hay's family and apologized. He also offered the services of counsellors and to meet again with the whole family.
Hay said he is too scared to meet with police and his only concern is lost wages for time off work.
When asked about Hay's injuries, De Caire told The Spectator he would not comment, saying only that a complaint has been filed with the Ontario Independent Police Review Director (OPIRD) -- an arms-length agency created seven months ago by the Attorney General. It is staffed entirely by civilians and is meant to keep police accountable for their actions.
But in a later statement, De Caire acknowledged that "during the process of securing the residence, a resident of the home was injured. Officers on the scene called for an ambulance and the resident was taken to hospital."
OPIRD "has carriage of the complaint now," said De Caire. Neither the chief nor OPIRD would say who laid the complaint. The next step is for OPIRD to determine if the complaint has merit, and if so, an investigation will begin that could result in a public hearing and discipline.
Hay's 23-year-old son, Say Blut, was in bed and was handcuffed after police knocked on his door. Another man, 21-year-old Panar Noo, was in the bathroom and alleges police handcuffed him, kicked him and dragged him downstairs.
While Hay says he was being kicked and punched, another team of officers arrived and one yelled "stop, stop." The officers did. They didn't apologize, he said. But a couple tried to wash some of the blood from his face.
The alleged cocaine dealer police were supposed to arrest that night was a 35-year-old whose name is not remotely similar to Po La Hay, according to a copy of the search warrant obtained by The Spectator. The apartment unit listed on the warrant is Hay's.
Police confirm that the intended target was later arrested. He faces two charges of trafficking.
A Hamilton detective constable got a "telewarrant" (done after hours and by phone) at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday from a justice of the peace in Newmarket. The warrant permitted officers to seize "cocaine, scales, money, cellphone, debt list, packaging and documents."
For Hay and members of the Karen community, the botched arrest threatens their trust of police. The Karen people are a persecuted ethnic group in Myanmar (formerly Burma).
Hay and his family, like most Karen people, was forced into a refugee camp by authorities. This treatment has resulted in common mistrust of police.
While in the camp, Hay's wife died of malaria in 1994. He managed to flee to Thailand with his son and daughter, Ba Blut, now 19. The family became successful refugee claimants to Canada in 2006.
There are about 300 Karen refugees in Hamilton. Most have been here for about three years.
Madina Wasuge, executive director of the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, called the botched arrest disturbing. "People flee situations that are dangerous and when they come to Canada, the first thing they are expecting is to be safe," she said, adding the actions nullify all the work her organization and others have done.
Fellow Karen and Hay's friend La Pa said her community feels isolated and scared since this incident.
"When we came to Canada, the first people we met were the police and they said you are safe," she said.
Now this incident is giving her flashbacks to her home country.
The raid on Hay's home came at the end of a two-week project by the vice and drug unit intended to target street level drug traffickers. Yesterday, just hours before Hay's family met with the chief, police issued a media release praising the "aggressive enforcement initiative" which also involved members of the BEAR (Break, Enter, Auto theft and Robbery) Unit, Guns and Weapons Enforcement Unit, the Intelligence Unit, the Emergency Response Unit and Uniform Patrol.
De Caire touted the good work of his officers "overall" and the "number of drugs taken off the streets that will not make it into the hands of children."
Most of the activity took place in the downtown core, with 49 arrests made, 100 charges laid and $1.2 million in drugs seized including cocaine, crack, marijuana, oxycodone and the largest seizure ever of crystal methamphetamine.
As a former Hamiltonian who went to school with the deputy police chief's kid, I'd like to apologise on behalf of my city. o.O