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July 20, 2004

Peter Owusu-Ansah's nightmare

From: Toronto Star, Canada - Jul 20, 2004


The first 17 times the police stopped him for questioning, Peter Owusu-Ansah took it. He's young, black and hearing impaired. He knew better than to give the officers any lip.

But the 18th time, the cops went too far. It happened on the evening of Sept. 13, 2002.

Owusu-Ansah and a group of friends had just finished a game of basketball at the Bob Rumball Centre for the Deaf in North York. They went to McDonald's for a snack, then headed to the bus stop at the corner of Bayview and Eglinton.

Before they got there, a police cruiser pulled up behind them with its lights flashing. Two officers got out and started asking questions. Owusu-Ansah, who can lip-read, explained that his friends were deaf and he was hard of hearing. A female officer demanded that he produce identification. He said he didn't have any with him. She asked for his name, address and birthdate. "I told her I was Peter and said why are you asking me all these questions?"

Two more officers were summoned. Owusu-Ansah was separated from his friends and interrogated by Constable Syed Ali Moosvi, a 14-year veteran of the force.

What transpired next is the subject of two legal actions and a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The police say they questioned Owusu-Ansah in connection with a reported robbery at Leaside High School. He says he was beaten and humiliated for no reason.

The confrontation began when Owusu-Ansah refused to give Moosvi any personal details other than his name. He told the officer to arrest him if he had committed any crime. Instead, according to Owusu-Ansah, Moosvi kneed him in the groin twice and twisted his arm painfully behind his back.

At that point, the bus came along and Owusu-Ansah's scared friends left.

He says he was pushed into the police cruiser and taken to a spot behind Northern Secondary School by Moosvi and his partner, Constable Wayne Taylor. There, he alleges, he was punched in the head and kneed in the groin repeatedly. He couldn't understand anything the officers were saying because he can't lip-read in the dark. "So I kept saying 'yes, sir' because I didn't want to be hit again."

Finally, he says, the officers put him back in the car and dropped him off at a bus stop near Mount Pleasant and Eglinton.

Owusu-Ansah told this story — partly through a sign language interpreter — at the offices of Parkdale Community Legal Services, where he is getting help navigating the courts and the human rights system. He says he doesn't want revenge and doesn't expect redress. "I just want this to stop."

At times, the 25-year-old immigrant from Ghana had trouble verbalizing his feelings, but mostly he spoke — or signed — with patient dignity.

He came to Canada at 15 years of age, believing he would enjoy all the rights set out in the citizenship booklet he was given. "I thought I would feel free, but it just never happened to me."

As a teenager, Owusu-Ansah attended Ernest C. Drury School for the hearing-impaired. Then he went on to study carpentry.

About four years ago, the encounters with the police began. He's been stopped while riding his bicycle to work, pulled out of coffee shops, told to freeze while walking down the street, ordered to empty his knapsack and pockets countless times and pushed against walls. "Now, every time I see them coming, I'm afraid."

Being hearing-impaired makes things worse, he says. Often the police think he's lying or trying to make problems. Usually, he's having trouble figuring out what's going on.

Elisabeth Brückmann, the lawyer who's handling Owusu-Ansah's human rights complaint, says it takes "incredible bravery" to speak out as he has done. Owusu-Ansah had to go to the police station where the two officers worked to file a complaint. He had to testify, through an interpreter, at their assault trial. He had to describe his ordeal to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. He had to become an advocate on his own behalf and a role model for others.

Brückmann holds out little hope that Moosvi and Taylor will be convicted. "When you have the word of a young black man against the word of two police officers, the young black man is going to lose every time," she says.

But his case is already making a difference. Yesterday, as the crown and defence delivered their closing arguments, members of a dozen community groups, ranging from the African Canadian Legal Clinic to the Canadian Hearing Society, came to the court to show their support for Osuwu-Ansah. The coalition plans to stay together to fight racial profiling and demand better treatment for people with disabilities. "This is not just about the police needing more anti-discrimination training," Brückmann says. "What they need to do is go to the communities that are affected and ask for their assistance."

Owusu-Ansah still gets stopped regularly by the police. He stays calm and reports the details to his caseworker at the Parkdale legal clinic.

After 10 years in Canada, he knows how to handle hostility and unfounded suspicion. But he keeps wondering what life would be like without them.

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