12-year-old Indigenous girls handcuffed in Prince George over box of crackers

Questions are being asked about how two Prince George loss prevention officers and an off-duty RCMP officer handled a recent situation involving two Indigenous girls inside Save-On-Foods.

Video taken by a shopper and provided to Global News shows two girls on the ground, each with a plainclothes officer holding them down. One of the girls is seen trying to break free from the man’s grips and screaming, “Let go of me.”

Chase Bullerwell, who was with the two girls, said the incident was troubling.

“Way too much punishment for the crime that happened,” he said. “And I think they don’t need to be doing all that. It was very scary and it shouldn’t have happened.”

The incident happened on May 21 at the Save-On-Foods at Pine Centre in Prince George.

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Bullerwell, 15, told Global News he was with the girls when one of them allegedly walked out of the grocery store without paying for a bag of crackers.

He said he didn’t realize one of them was suspected of shoplifting until loss prevention officers chased after them and asked that the crackers be returned to the store and that the girls follow him.

“Eventually he got fed up with her not going with him and he grabbed her; put his arms around her, even around her neck and, like, choke locking her,” Bullerwell described. “You could hear how much fear and pain she’s going through. She was fearing for her life.”

Courtney Lank was shopping on May 21 when the girls’ screams caught her attention.

She accused the officers of using excessive force.

“They could have achieved their job of preventing theft without any of the violence or aggression that they use. So, for me, I realized that they had way overstepped their bounds to a place of harm in attempting to prevent a three-dollar theft,” she said.

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Questions of racial profiling raised

Even though Bullerwell was with the two girls, he noticed he was not tackled to the ground like they were.

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“I think it might have been about race that they were taken down specifically, rather than me or any other people that were there who were involved,” he said.

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His mother, Kelsey Pattie, believes he was treated differently because of his looks.

“I feel without a shadow of a doubt that if my son were not a beautiful, blue-eyed, white-skinned male that he would’ve been on the ground with those girls,” she said.

Vanessa Williams started recording the incident when she heard the bloodcurdling screams inside the store.

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She said as an Indigenous woman, she’s experienced racial profiling when shopping in Prince George.

“Any store that I go into, always followed because of the colour of my skin. I try not to let it bother me but for children, I will step up,” she said.

“I seen the one young Indigenous girl was having a panic attack and I could just feel for her. I know how she feels it’s just sad that more people didn’t stand up for these children.”

Pattie said theft is a crime, but the officers could’ve approached the girls with empathy.

“She could have been taken aside and explain to her that, ‘We understand you’re hungry, we would love to help you. However, it is not acceptable to just take something because you need it.’ I wish that we were asking why these children (were) stealing food versus condemning them for it,” she said.

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Global News has learned that the two 12-year-old Indigenous girls are in ministry care; one of them has the mental and emotional capacity of an eight-year-old.

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Save-On Foods-defends actions

In a statement to Global News, Save-On-Foods wrote that it is aware of the May 21 incident.

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“When our loss prevention officer (LPO) requested that the stolen product be returned, the LPO was subject to assault by members of this group outside of the store,” it wrote. “The alleged theft and assault were reported to the Prince George RCMP, and the RCMP are expected to forward criminal charges of theft and assault against the shoplifters.”

Save-On-Foods did not respond to Global News’ follow-up questions.

No charges laid

Prince George RCMP told Global News it will not be recommending charges.

“There’s insufficient evidence for us to provide a report to Crown Counsel to recommend charges in this investigation,” said Cpl. Jennifer Cooper. “The evidence that we were able to obtain from the loss prevention officers just did not meet the charge threshold for us to make recommendations to Crown Counsel.”

Less than a minute into Williams’ cell phone video, an off-duty officer is seen moving on top of one of the girls and announcing, “Police, you’re under arrest.”

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Bullerwell said he was confused when the officer intervened from out of nowhere but was initially hopeful.

“I thought that she was there to help us. But really, all she was doing was sitting or kneeling on my friend and hurting her even more,” he said.

Lank witnessed this happening and believed the off-duty officer made the situation worse.

“When she joined in, she kneeled on the youth’s ankles to help restrain her as well. So instead of helping the situation by de-escalating and calming the youth and handling the situation properly, she instead added a third adult’s body weight onto a child and further distressed (the) youth,” she said.

She added that she’s speaking out as she would like to see better training for both police and security officers.

“There’s tons of trauma training and nonviolence intervention that doesn’t involve that level of aggression,” Lank said.

“I think it’s training and more accountability in order to provide safer care and protect the community better.”

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Prince George RCMP defended the officer’s actions.

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“She used a control technique that quickly allowed that person to be placed in handcuffs and that’s part of what she was there to do. The situation was wrapped up fairly quickly after she assisted,” Cooper said.

When Global News asked Cooper to respond to allegations that the officer did not use a trauma-informed approach and escalated the situation, she said the officer and the loss prevention officers followed proper training.

“This video shows only a very short portion of what occurred that day from when the loss prevention officers first encountered the youth. We shouldn’t try to armchair quarterback something where we’ve only seen a tiny portion of what occurred,” she said.

Shaken, but moving forward

Pattie said she’s been in touch with the girls’ foster family.

“From my understanding, they’re pretty shaken. They don’t want to talk about it. They want it all to go away,” she said.

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At the end of the cell phone video, a woman in a Save-On-Foods uniform is seen comforting and cradling one of the girls and she cries in her arms.

The witnesses told Global News they are speaking out about the incident because they are seeking accountability and would like to see changes to how police and security guards are trained.