Are Calgary’s police officers being held to account when they abuse their power? Calgary-born filmmakers Marc Serpa Francoeur and Robinder Uppal join Team Advantage to discuss their recent CBC documentary, Above the Law, an eye-opening investigation into police brutality and the lack of accountability in the Calgary Police Service.
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Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. I’m your host, Kate Jacobson, and with me on Team Advantage today is Clinton Hallahan.
Kate: We are here to discuss a recent documentary that aired on CBC about the Calgary police titled Above the Law. Joining us are the film’s producers, Marc Serpa Francoeur and Robinder Uppal. Marc and Robinder, thank you for joining us here on The Alberta Advantage.
Robinder: Thanks for having us.
Marc: Thank you so much.
Kate: So, your documentary covers three major incidents involving the Calgary police, two of which are connected to the same officer. To start off with, and to give our audience a bit of context, could you briefly tell us the story of Godfred Addai-Nyamekye and what happened to him on a cold winter night in 2013?
Marc: So, Godfred’s at home — relaxing, as they say — and gets a call from a friend. Friend says, “Hey bud, we’re at a house party. We’re stinker. Can you come over and drive us back?” Godfred takes a cab, or gets a ride, over there and is acting as a designated driver. On the way where they’re going — this is sort of southeast Clagary, kind of the edge of the industrial park — in a curve in the road, slide off the road and get stuck in a snowbank. This is right by the old Shamrock hotel, some Albertan types might recognize. Anyways, they get out of the car. The other guys are, again, quite stinkered and perhaps of not much help. They’re trying to push this thing — it’s a 4×4, actually, a BMW X5, decent car — and can’t get it out. Two officers, Calgary Police Service Van, roll up. And this is where our stories diverge. According to the officers, they are nothing but genteel and helpful; offered to, you know, help them out. According to Godfred, they sort of pull up and are basically taking the piss, being like, “Hey guys, you tried pushing?”, what have you, and aren’t particularly helpful. Godfred says, “Well, hey, if you guys aren’t going to help us, we’re fine. I’ll call a tow truck, no big deal. Why don’t you leave us alone?” It’s worth mentioning that these are four Black guys outside of this BMW; whether that’s a factor is, of course, speculative, but it is a fact that that is the case. These officers, according to them — one of them, Donockley, testified to this and included it in his notes — Godfred is described as being bizarrely aggressive, first to the owner (his friend) and then that aggression is turned, supposedly, on the officer. Where the stories then converge again, and everyone agrees, is they detain him, they quite aggressively take him down — in the process, cut his lip, which both sides of the story note — put him in the back of the police van, and at this point in time, they, at some point — basically, on their event chronology as to what happens, it sort of goes dark here — they, at some point, issue a public intoxication ticket. Now, keep in mind that Godfred maintains he never actually received this ticket. He also, of course, maintains that he was the designated driver, had not been drinking, they did not do a sobriety test, did not do a breathalyzer, did not even note any smell of alcohol on his breath. And they proceed to — knowing where he lives, of course, which was over kind of by Earlton — drive in the opposite direction of his house and dump him in what was, at the time, the massive constriction site that was the East Village, just on the east edge of downtown Calgary. Now, this is approaching 4 in the morning. It’s -28 degrees Celsius with the windchill. Godfred is wearing a tracksuit and sneakers, does not have a tuque, gloves, a jacket, nothing. And they dump him there. Now, things might have been resolved had Godfred’s phone not been dead; unfortunately, it is dead. And he does have a phone, however, that belonged to one of the other guys who had dropped it and had been so drunk, in fact, that they hadn’t noticed they dropped the phone. The only problem with a locked cell phone is: who can you call? That’s right, your friendly neighbourhood police. Calls 911. The first operator clearly doesn’t understand that this is someone in crisis, keeps telling him to call a taxi; and albeit, had Godfred, who’s originally from Ghana, West Africa, perhaps had he answered the phone and said, “Hi, I’m in need of help. I’m calling you because I can’t call anyone else because I’m on a locked phone. Please send a squad car or a taxi.” Instead, this 911 operator hangs up on him. He calls again, and after a protracted 10-minute plus discussion, another officer arrives. And it’s worth noting that we’ve learned in recent Freedom of Information requests — and this was not included in the disclosure at trial, but — the officers who had dropped him off had actually called dispatch and said, “Hey, just in case you get a call from this guy, we’ve dealt with him. He’s drunk, he’s going to walk home.” And again, these are officers who knew that they had, in fact, gone in the opposite direction of his house and brought him further from his home. So, in any case, this officer, Lindsey, arrives, and you can hear in the tail end of the 911 call that he just seems extremely aggressive out the gate, and you can actually hear him approaching Godfriend. And right before the call cuts off, he goes, “Don’t you fucking —” and it cuts off. At which point Godfred says that he just saw the look in this guy’s eye and thought, “This guy’s going to kill me,” turns around to run away from him. He tasers him in the back, and then Godfred says he doesn’t remember too much after this, but after three rounds of the Taser, Trevor Lindsey is his name — Constable Trevor Lindsey — has Godfred in handcuffs and proceeds to drag him through the snow and then, at some point in time, just kind of falls on top of him and just repeatedly beats him — knees and punches to the head and back. Eventually, backup arrives, and — no surprise — Godfred is charged with assaulting an officer. And we’ll point out that the assault that was alleged was not that Godfred had struck or otherwise physically contacted this officer, but that he had — it was a gestural assault, that he had gestured at him in an assaultive way.
Kate: This incident happened in 2013 and then, in 2015, your film jumps forward a little bit and recounts another incident involving the same constable — Constable Trevor Lindsey — this time involving the arrest of Daniel Howarth, who is the son of a former Calgary police officer. Could you tell us what happened with Daniel?
Robinder: On May 25th, 2015, Daniel Howarth was arrested by CPS — again, Constable Trevor Lindsey was the officer doing the arresting. Constable Trevor Lindsey arrests Daniel for — he’s accused of breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s house and stealing some things. Trevor Lindsey puts Daniel Howarth into the back of a police squad car. Daniel Howarth is cooperative at this point; we know this because we’ve seen the in-car videos that were taken at the time. And basically they drive Daniel Howarth to the arrest-processing unit. They pull in there, and Daniel Howarth is handcuffed, his hands are cuffed behind his back. Once they’re at the arrest-processing unit, Constable Lindsey proceeds to remove Daniel Howarth from the car. There are some words exchanged — we’re not clear exactly what those words are, but a video that’s taken from the surveillance video, it shows that Trevor Lindsey punches Daniel Howarth once around the nose and mouth area, and some more time passes, and there are more words exchanged, at which point Trevor Lindsey punches Daniel three more times in the head, very quickly in rapid succession. His head sort of hits the back of the squad car. And then, very quickly, Lindsey swings Daniel Howarth around and throws him to the pavement, and we see Daniel Howarth’s head hit the pavement very forcefully, and he does not move after that. And multiple minutes pass when Howarth is lying on the ground, and there are two police officers, Lindsey and his partner, sort of around him. And a few minutes pass before he is put into an ambulance and taken away. So that throw, those punches and that throw, resulted in Daniel Howarth getting a fractured skull and a brain bleed. And these were both permanent injuries for him; he had permanent memory damage and memory loss and had to have a hole drilled in his skull months later to have the pressure from the brain bleed relieved. And yeah, that was an incident that happened a year and a half after Constable Trevor Lindsey had violently beaten and kicked and kneed — I should say, just kneed — Godfred. And after the Calgary Police Service had, in their hands, a complaint from Godfred alleging excessive force by Constable Trevor Lindsey.
Kate: So you have these two incidents, both involving the same officer — this Constable Trevor Lindsey. What ends up happening to Constable Trevor Lindsey? Are there any charges brought against him, and what is the result, or any consequences he might have faced for these actions?
Marc: I mean, that’s kind of the essential question, what are the consequences for the actions? In the second incident, the Howarth one, he was eventually charged with aggravated assault. There was quite a delay; it wasn’t until early 2017 charges had been announced against an officer. The officer wasn’t named, but the name was leaked to the public, and it was, in fact, Constable Trevor Lindsey. Now, here was Godfred. In Godfred’s case, there were no charges filed, neither against Lindsey nor against the officers that had given him this kind of urban “starlight tour” situation. And you can’t blame Godfred for looking at that disparity. Why were there charges in the one case and not in the other? And we’ve actually heard from, among others, for example, a Crown prosecutor who’s looked at both the videos and said, “I mean, those — looks like a pretty similar type of assault to me.” So it’s not at all clear why there weren’t charges in Godfred’s case. Would love for the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service to articulate exactly what their reasoning was in the one case versus the other and why they saw a difference there, the one case warranting charges — serious charges, mind you — and the other warranting nothing.
Robinder: I just want to add, quickly, that the charges in the Howarth case — the incident happened May 25th, 2015, and charges weren’t announced until a year and a half later, in January of 2017. And it really begs the question: why does it take so very long to investigate when an officer is accused of wrongdoing? Because, as far as we know, Trevor Lindsey was still working as a police officer for that entire duration, as well. And in the meantime, in the interim, Daniel Howarth — who had been seeking treatment for his addiction issues — he was having a hard time in rehab, and he was missing meetings, and he was eventually kicked out of his rehab facility for missing those meetings, and — that same day — he died of a fentanyl overdose. And his family maintains that part of the reason for this was this permanent brain injury which was caused by Trevor Lindsey and this violent assault.
Kate: So, with these two cases, you have a Black man who, after getting the Calgary equivalent of a starlight tour in the dead of winter — and a starlight tour, for those of you who don’t know, is a common tactic used by the police, particularly most famously in Saskatoon in Saskatchewan, of taking Indigenous people — primarily Indigenous people who are drug users or who are unhoused — from the city, putting them into police cars in the middle of winter, and basically driving them out of town. If you live in Canada, I don’t have to tell you how extremely dangerous this is. And it does often, and has led to the disappearance and death of many people in Saskatoon and many other provinces where this is practiced by the police force. And Godfred gets badly beaten and he is charged with assault by an officer. There is police helicopter video of this officer just, you know, really quite seriously whaling his knee into this man who is prone on the ground. And then, a year and a half later, this same officer is then recorded on video punching and body-slamming a handcuffed person who is in custody, fracturing their skull. Five years later, the officer still hasn’t been sentenced, and, as far I understand, is still technically on the Calgary Police Force. And a major point in your film that you’ve brought up here is that the complaint Godfred makes has, so far, gone basically nowhere, but the officer who he lodged the complaint against went on to grievously injure — and ultimately, as the family maintains, contribute to the death of — Daniel Howarth. And your film suggests that this complaint process is basically a PR exercise — it’s essentially for show — because there’s no follow-through or consequences or accountability. And in these two cases, you know, I think we can posit a counterfactual that, if there had been even a semblance of accountability, maybe Constable Lindsey wouldn’t have been the one dealing with Daniel Howarth that day, and maybe Daniel would still be alive. And I’m curious — given what you covered in your film, what is your sense of police accountability when it comes to these types of incidents?
Marc: I mean, to take a step back, Godfred — just to be clear —files a formal complaint in which he details, not just the treatment at the hands of Lindsey, but also describes how he had gotten to that place. This is a month after the incident, and there is just ostensibly no follow-up from Calgary Police Service that we’re aware of. So the internal complaint process — say that you go file a complaint tomorrow. Unless they’ve changed something in the last month or so, you basically, every 45 days, you get a letter saying, “Your complaint is being investigated.” There’s a fundamental problem here in the sense that, when you file a complaint, the Calgary Police Service — there’s no transparency around this. They don’t say to you, “Oh, hey, this is how we’ve interpreted your complaint.” Because, you know, maybe a complaint is, for whatever complex of reasons, somewhat convoluted, or — who knows. They don’t say, “This is how we’ve interpreted the complaint. Did we get something wrong? Did we miss something? Is there something you’d like to add?” It’s basically a black box. And what happened in Godfred’s case is they chose to interpret the complaint — and we don’t know if this is malicious or just incompetence or what, but — quite myopically, and restricted it, essentially, just to Lindsey. Now, had they actually meaningfully responded to the complaint in time, perhaps even that would have done some good, but as a result of this myopic response, we are now up to a total of, I think, nine complaints related to Godfred’s case. So you have complaints about the mishandling of complaints, and then, even on top of that, complaints about that. Part of the challenge is, in a system where we ostensibly have oh so little accountability, what alternatives are there? And in the case — other than filing these complaints, there’s really not a lot of options. And in the case of Godfred, I mean, here we are, six and a half years later, and — justifiably so — his case is getting a lot of attention. But that was not the case in the years leading up to this. So there’s a real issue there. And in terms of — we’ve spoken, for example, to former police chief Roger Chaffin and we discussed this whole issue of the complaint process, and he said, you know, basically acknowledged that it’s a travesty. And even, in fact, in recent communique from the Calgary Police Service in response to a request for comment from CBC, they also acknowledged as much, that the system is essentially not functioning. Our understanding is that, in the initial design, when somebody files a complaint, this is supposed to be dealt with in short order — we’re talking, you know, in a couple of months. This is not supposed to span into this, or kind of morph into this, whole quasi-judicial parallel justice system in which, you know, everything — because part of what happens is, well, everything is always pending these other investigations. It’s like, nothing is ever happening because of these pending investigations. And I can tell you, it can be quite frustrating and challenging to even figure out, “Wait a minute — what is the investigation that’s pending?” What is the hierarchy? It’s unclear, like, what are the hierarchies of investigations? We know that “criminal” is at the top, but in Godfred’s case — to our knowledge — no criminal proceedings were filed against any of these officers. So it kind of begs the question: what are you referring to, exactly? What are these pending investigations? And there is also the question: in the year and a half between Godfred’s incident and his trial — which happened to coincide within two weeks of the Daniel Howarth incident — were you also not investigating the complaint at that time because the trial against Godfred was pending? Because if that’s the way they’re operating, I mean, good Christ. I mean, it’s just — we’re dealing with a system that’s broken in so many ways. The good thing — or, you know, one of the options that’s been thrown around a lot, and including by, we’ll point out, the Albert Association of Chiefs of Police, which, at the time, was headed by current Police Chief of Calgary Mark Neufeld — they released recommendations, and first and foremost in these recommendations is the need to civilianize the professional standards section at police forces in Alberta. So what would that mean? That would mean that, when you file a complaint, it’s not just getting funneled into this department at the police, because, quite frankly, it’s being handled internally, so you have your obvious conflict of interest — and people rightly ask, “Is this just police policing the police?” But also, it’s unclear — do the people at Calgary Police Service that are responding to the complaints, do they have the right kind of education, perhaps, to be handling them? I mean, these are just all open questions. And, again, there’s just a whole hell of a lot of anything but transparency about the complaint process.
Clinton: When you guys were investigating these incidents, did the Calgary Police Commission crop up on your radar at all? Their presence in the documentary is minimal, I think.
Robinder: One of the things with the Police Commission is that we went to several of their public meetings and, either by design or just by happenstance, they don’t end up being responsible for oversight as it relates to officer behaviour, specifically with individual officers. They are really charged with looking at operational concerns, things like: how are they spending their budget? And, ultimately, it doesn’t seem like they really have many mechanisms to enforce good behaviour on the part of the police. I mean, the system is not really set up for them to make direct claims or corrections to the behaviour of the police writ large or to individual officers. I mean, it’s a very general sort of oversight mechanism. And I think, you know — people have raised questions about how effective that oversight is and whether or not some other mechanism that is led by civilians needs to be put into place.
Clinton: So, the third incident that you guys go into the documentary involves the death of Anthony Heffernan, also in 2015. Could you tell the listeners about that incident and what happened?
Marc: This is March 2015. Anthony Heffernan is a 27-year-old electrician; works in the oil patch and originally from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. During his time in the patch, family sort of points to — as is quite common, you know, you’re making enough money, easy enough to develop — a drug habit. He had been, ostensibly, quite clean, so to speak, in the years prior, but on this particular occasion, he’d relapsed, had been quietly doing drugs in his hotel room, minding his own business. He failed to check out of the hotel room on time, and the hotel staff called Calgary Police. And jump forward an hour or two, and basically five officers kick down the door, go in guns and tasers out — he’s tasered twice, and one of these officers, Constable Maurice McLoughlin, sees fit to shoot Anthony four times and leave him dead on the floor of the hotel room. And it’s estimated that it couldn’t have been more than 72 seconds between the entry and when the shots were reported. In this case, the sort of initial — and if you can see in the film, it’s quite stunning, you know — at the time, the interim chief Paul Cook, longtime executive member of the Calgary Police Service, he makes a statement in the initial press conference saying that, as a result of his actions, Anthony had been shot. I mean, that’s a hell of a thing to come out and say prior to any sort of formal investigation. But in any case, the narrative evolves that, oh, he had in fact had a syringe in his hand. The testimony from the different officers, as best we can gather from the ASIRT report (and we can discuss what ASIRT is afterward) implied that he likely had, perhaps, a lighter in one hand that he was nervously flicking, as he was wont to do, and in the other hand, may have had a small 10 cm diabetic syringe with no needle tip. So the best that the officers can say is that this guy had a small syringe with no needle tip. That was sort of the equivalent of the weapon. So this is sort of one of these classic — classic in the sense of tragic — wellness checks gone wrong. I mean, the family looks at this, and you’ve got: five heavily-armed officers go in, all their other tools and accoutrements, and the one officer just decides to light him up. And it’s unclear, or it’s worth noting, that there was a sergeant in the room with them. The sergeant didn’t say, “Fire,” or anything; it really just seems to be that this one officer lost his nerve or otherwise panicked. And it’s very telling that, actually — you have to understand. So, Anthony plus five officers in a small — this is a Super 8 hotel room (a budget room, if you will); it is not overly spacious, so they’re really crammed in there. And, actually, the officers that were closest to Anthony had holstered their weapons — taser and gun — again, it’s a little bit unclear, but clearly, some of these officers had put their weapons away with the intention to grab Anthony. So clearly, those who were closest to him did not feel that he was such a threat at that moment. So it really just seems like a poor decision, a panicked decision by this officer.
Kate: I also wanted to say — all three of these incidents that you outline in your documentary, and particularly this last one in the case of Anthony Heffernan, really indicate to me that the police, through their function in society, through how they are trained, through the equipment they have in the course of doing their job, really encourages them to react to people around them violently and really encourages the police to see people around them — that they are ostensibly supposed to be helping — as potential threats and as threats to their own life. And I know this is a really common theme in police training, but I think you see it in all three of these incidents that you describe; obviously mediated by factors like drug use, by race, things like that, but that’s one of the things that really jumped out for me when I was watching this documentary and when we were preparing for this podcast. But, as you mentioned, Marc, ASIRT — so, the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team — their probe into this incident found evidence of officer wrongdoing. Can you tell us who the officer was and what happened to this evidence of wrongdoing that was found by ASIRT?
Robinder: ASIRT doesn’t usually — the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team is the police watchdog in Alberta, and they don’t normally find any reason to believe that officers have committed offenses. But in this case, they found that there were reasonable grounds to think that an offense, or offenses, had been committed under the criminal code. And that’s rare enough — it rarely happens that ASIRT finds fault in an officer’s actions, but they did find that in this case, and they found that despite the fact that the investigation was, on many levels, very flawed, and certainly Tom Engel — the lawyer for the Heffernans — has pointed out many serious flaws in ASIRT’s investigation. But despite those flaws — and we can get to those later — ASIRT did forward this file to the prosecution, and they said, “We think there’s something here, and we think that you should —” according to Susan Hughson, the executive director of ASIRT, she said to the Heffernans that they would be telling the Crown prosecution to consider charges of second-degree murder, manslaughter, and criminal negligence causing death. And the Crown gets this file, and instead of proceeding, they say that they want more evidence and they would like an external use of force report. And, ultimately, they end up, instead of going to a use of force expert that the family, the Heffernans, wanted, they ended up going with a use of force expert who was associated with the Force Science Institute, which has been a very controversial entity and has frequently been accused of, and certainly their founder, Bill Lewinski, has been accused of, just testifying in favour of police. Basically, the Crown gets this use of force report and uses that as part of their decision-making and decides to not bring any charges against the constable, Constable Maurice McLoughlin, because they find that there’s a low likelihood of conviction, despite ASIRT’s finding and despite the whole investigation.
Clinton: Just whilte we’re talking about ASIRT — at the end of the documentary, you guys mention that the executive director, Susan Hughson, of ASIRT declined to be interviewed for your documentary. But in the end credits, she is thanked. Can you guys elaborate a little bit on her cooperation with the documentary?
Marc: It’s edifying to see that someone is paying attention. We spoke with Susan on many occasions — for example, she allowed us to go in and shoot B-roll in the ASIRT offices and press conference room downtown Calgary. You know, she ultimately declined to be interviewed. She cited that she felt kind of wrong done, hard done by the press in the past. I think that, for her, she sort of looks at it — I mean, she ostensibly has a lot on her plate and she sees it as a zero-sum game, essentially. I mean, we look at it and we think, “Okay, well, this is a pretty serious survey of these issues that we’re doing, that we would like to have somebody commenting on them in an official capacity,” but at the end of the day, I mean, there was nothing that we could do but repeatedly ask and get denied. She is thanked because we did have a number of quite insightful, off-the-record conversations in which I would say that it certainly contributed to our overall insight. But it’s quite frustrating on our part to not have that kind of cooperation. And I will say that, at ASIRT, I mean, they’re running — again, there’s a lot of claims about them having some real budgetary issues or resourcing issues — I mean, as it stands, and for the duration of the time that we’ve been doing this film, or at least for the portion of time that we’ve been in contact with them, they haven’t had a media person. So Susan Hughson, in addition to being the director and responsible for all their investigations, is ostensibly also the one fielding any sort of inquiries from the media. So, I mean, I don’t know that that makes for a happy situation. Now, the Crown — you know, the Crown is a whole different story. This is a ostensibly well-funded organization with many different people working for them, and we repeatedly requested — again, we wanted to speak with then-Deputy Minister Eric Tolppanen, who’s the head of the Crown Prosecution Service — you can see him in the film, getting up to what he does — and to have him shut us down — okay, fine, but to not have anyone provided by the Crown Prosecution Service to speak to us on their behalf, I mean, that seems like a genuine issue in terms of a lack of willingness to engage with the media about those issues.
Kate: And speaking of Eric Tolppanen — the assistant deputy minister for Alberta Justice — your film suggests that he had an irregular presence in the Crown’s decision not to proceed with laying charges in the case of Constable Maurice McLoughlin — who, again, shot a 27-year-old Anthony Heffernan. Can you tell us a bit about that announcement, what seemed peculiar about it? And you’ve talked a little bit about what your efforts to get an interview with Tolppanen were like, but if you have any more details about that experience, I’d be interested to hear it.
Robinder: The Heffernans were certainly very surprised when they were told that ASIRT was going to announce the conclusion of their investigation, and, instead of having a prosecutor — which would be the normal, one of the many prosecutors at the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service assigned to this file — somehow the head of the entire Crown Prosecution Service, Eric Tolppanen, appears at this press conference and, as Pat Haffernan says in the film, we don’t know why he was there. There has never been an explanation proffered for what the particular reason was for him to feel that it was important for him to publicly come out and make these claims. You know, we can speculate, but we don’t know why he was the person who was ultimately speaking to this case. Our understanding is that the prosecutor who was assigned to the case initially, according to Susan Hughson, was not, ultimately, the person who was making the announcement of the charges, and ultimately not the person who was making the decision on the charges, as far as we know. Why the case was elevated beyond that person and up to somebody like Tolppanen remains something of a mystery. Clearly, there had been a lot of scrutiny on the case — the Haffernans were very public about their desire for justice, and we don’t know how much pressure from different organizations, whether the police union or whether other entities, played into the decision to move that prosecutor off the case and have Eric Tolppanen, instead, be the person who was the face of that decision. But it certainly raises a lot of questions. Unfortunately, the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service doesn’t really release any information about what the specifics are of why they’re making the decision that they’re making. And I think the whole case points to a major flaw in justice in Alberta, which is that there isn’t a lot of transparency, specifically when it comes to holding police officers and other public officials to account. There’s very little transparency on why the Crown decides to prosecute or not, and this is a huge problem because, ultimately, the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service had the final say on these cases of whether or not to prosecute. The Haffernans made an effort to get a judge to review the decision, but the judge basically said, “It’s not on me to micromanage the Crown Prosecution Service; they have their prosecutorial independence, and I can’t do anything about this.” So the Haffernans are left with no recourse, basically, when Constable Maurice McLoughlin wasn’t prosecuted, and the reasons given are very unsatisfying.
Marc: This ostensibly would have been, if not the, certainly one of the, most serious prosecutions of an officer, certainly in recent history in Alberta. And again, including this suggestion of charges up to second-degree murder — I mean, that’s pretty extraordinary in the context of an officer. And here you have the Crown coming back, and their reasons given for not going to trial went down to — and Tolppanen says something to the effect of, “Ultimately, we could not disprove that the officer feared for his life.” Now, let’s just keep in mind that we’re dealing with a situation where, even if Anthony — so, in the worst-case scenario — would have had a little one-centimeter needle tip on a diabetic needle, right, and in the end did not have the needle tip, this would have been the deadly weapon to justify his killing. I mean, that is just outlandish. And again, in our mind, we’re looking at this, and this sort of is a similar kind of argument that was used, say, in the Trayvon Martin, with Zimmerman in Florida, there, where ultimately it’s just like, “Oh, well this person was afraid, and therefore they’re justified in this killing.” And I mean, again, if that is the acceptable legal standard, I would posit that — I mean, for me personally, I don’t accept that as reasonable, and I would suspect that many other members of the public would also question that reasonableness of that type of argument.
Robinder: And just to put a final button on that, let’s remember that the officers broke down the door and went into Anthony’s hotel room. So there is this whole question of when someone is not a danger to other people and you’re coming into their space. This brings to mind the Ejaz Choudry case in Mississauga very recently where you have a wellness check, again, gone very wrong, they’re kicking in a door, they’re going in kicking and screaming. When you’re invading that person’s space— what, then, becomes the reasonable charge? Like, is criminal negligence causing death, perhaps, the charge that, at the very least, you should be taking to trial, rather than saying there’s no reasonable likelihood of conviction at all? And I think that, like Marc said, it gives us pause.
Marc: And this comes up a lot, you know — this sort of question of, “oh, okay. Well, what are the alternatives?” There are so many alternatives! We’ll point to — and viewers can find, online through CBC, as well — a film called Hold Your Fire. And Hold Your Fire, it shows, for example, a technique that’s used in the UK, commonly, when you’re dealing with someone with a sharp object, for example, where you go in, officers with head-to-toe body shields, and you kind of just back somebody into a corner and you then wait for them to calm down. This is even without us getting into the bigger discussions to do with the role of the police and phasing out — you know, this is just — police officers in the system that exists as it is, it just seems very obvious that there should be other ways to respond to these cases. And, actually, a lot of the shooting deaths that we’ve seen in recent years, in Calgary in particular — I mean, you just have one heartbreaking instance after another of people in mental health crises — maybe with something kind of vaguely sharp, but, generally speaking, not harming anybody else, and yet still end up dead on the ground.
Kate: And I think it might be worth bringing up the severity of the problem here in Calgary. In 2016, there was a CBC article that said Calgary police shot ten people in 2016; more than any other Canadian city. In 2018, the headline was, “Calgary had more police shootings this year than some of Canada’s biggest cities combined.” And in 2019, there was an article in the Star titled, “Report of use of force by Calgary officers on the rise, police data shows.” So, it is — I think it’s really tempting for a lot of people who live in Canada to look at headlines about police violence in the United States of America and assume that this is a problem that is somehow unique to that country, but not only do these issues exist in Canada, but Calgary is also one of the worst cities in Canada when it comes to the police murdering people.
Marc: We’re kind of understating it here. So, in 2016, Calgary police shot and killed more people than the other ten largest cities in Canada combined. That’s the stat. And that’s just, again, outlandish, because it’s one thing when you compare, you know, Calgary and Toronto — okay, it’s twice the population — but the ten other largest cities combined? Like, what is going on here? And in 2018 — just out of curiosity to our — this is us looking at the numbers available out of the States — we had more fatal police shootings in Calgary than either the Chicago or New York police departments. Now, keep in mind that, in absolute terms, it’s not —
Kate: Oh my god, it’s in absolute terms?
Marc: Yeah, no no no.
Kate: Okay, I read a statistic showing that — maybe it was in a different year, that Calgary had more police shootings per capita than major American cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago. But you’re saying in 2018 it was in absolute terms.
Marc: Oh, it’s in absolute terms. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So Chicago — again, twice the population, the municipality of Chicago that the Chicago Police Department serves, twice the population, roughly, of Calgary. And keep in mind, this is a city with that year, I think, five hundred and something-odd homicides, compared to Calgary, which had seventeen, not including the five people killed by Calgary police (because those don’t count, apparently). And then New York. I mean, New York is almost 9,000,000 people, you know. So we’re actually dealing with magnitudes. And keep in mind that this reflects the fact that, in Chicago and New York, it is apparently no longer as acceptable to just be shooting people, so they have, quite a bit, brought their numbers down. But it doesn’t change the fact that, again, this is absolute terms. And that is, to me, absolutely outlandish.
Kate: Yeah, that is absolutely — I am actually a bit astonished. I thought it was bad, but not quite as bad as you just laid out. I thought it was like one point less bad.
Marc: No, no, no, it’s really fucking outlandish. I mean, again, it’s just, like — and it’s this bigger sort of cultural thing, you know? I think that part of the problem is you have a situation or a system in which officers — I mean, if they do not fear consequences for these decisions, it’s hard to blame them for being so quick on the draw. We live in the shadow of this horrendous gargantuan to the south, and everything is sort of contextualized in an American, you know, vis-a-vis them, and I think we’re so used to writing off these issues as, “Oh, these are American problems, these are not Canadian problems.” And that’s precisely why we’re in the situation that we’re in. You know, people point out, in the States, it’s like, “Oh, well, you know, the police have — they’re sort of evolving out of slave patrols.” I mean, in Canada, in Western Canada, the police are evolving out of the RCMP.
Kate: Who were created to clear the plains for white settlers in one of the fundamental acts of genocide that created Canada.
Kate: I’m curious — what was it like working on this documentary over a relatively long period and then having it come out when the scrutiny on police violence is a really high-profile discussion all around the world?
Robinder: I think for us, it was quite frustrating, at times, that people in Canada didn’t seem as concerned about these issues as we felt that they should be. At least the people we were talking to, and sometimes decision-makers and other people, when you go to pitch the film, and it’s like, “Oh, yeah, but it’s Canada; things aren’t so bad there, and maybe this isn’t as big of a story, and we’ll pass.” But I think the recent uprising, the movement, shows that people in Canada — specifically BIPOC people — know that this is a huge issue and it affects them disproportionately. And that’s been, you know — in the wake of the George Floyd killing, the size of the protests that we saw in Calgary and across Canada was really heartening for us, because it showed that people really do care about this issue. And, despite our frustrations over the years working on the documentary and running up against denials from people to talk to us, or from Freedom of Information requests being denied, or just the frustration with the fact that there’s no record-keeping on a national level with how many people are being killed where, how much police violence there is, and certainly no race-based statistics around those things — despite all that frustration, that Canadians do, in fact, care about those issues. And they took to the streets to show it, which, for us, was a very inspiring and heartening thing to see.
Clinton: Your film examines specific cases, but it suggests broader systemic issues. Do you think documentary film as a medium can make that kind of systemic critique? And is it difficult to establish a compelling narrative when examining larger, broader problems?
Robinder: [exhales] I mean, it’s a small question.
Marc: It’s kind of the — yeah, it’s a — no, I mean, look, I think it takes all comers. Like, part of why these problems have festered so long is because they haven’t gotten the attention in various forms. And I think, for example, I think this country — we could use a hell of a lot more academic on these issues. There is a handful of people who are looking at policing issues, but not — again, it’s few and far between. And in terms of film, I mean, we’re putting the finishing touches on a feature-length version of this film that we’re talking about. So Above the Law is the 44-minute version for CBC; No Visible Trauma, which we hope to be bringing to a festival near you starting in the fall, is going to be topping out at about 100 minutes, so it’s, you know — twice the fun! And a whole hell of a lot more detail in terms of some of these issues we’re dealing with, both in terms of the cases, but also in terms of the systemic side of it. So we’re doing our best to contribute to the discussion, and it seems like the response we’ve had, and obviously no small part of this is the moment we’re in — this film was supposed to come out top of April, and you can just imagine if, in the very beginning of COVID, what that would have looked like. So this whole project started, originally, when we found out about Godfred’s case, met Godfred’s case, and originally was — and still ostensibly will be — an interactive visual podcast, as we call it. We have a background doing, also, sort of interactive online documentary. And that, eventually, will be sort of a deep dive into, specifically, Godfred’s case, relying on the primary materials from that night and the trial — really getting into the weeds in terms of the prosecution, as well, to look at some of those issues. So, I mean, there’s just so much to unpack. And we’re even toying with the idea of doing a regular old conventional kind of investigative podcast, because, again — the amount of detail, and still stuff keeps coming out of the woodwork. We had someone reach out to us the other day with a personal connection to one of these officers that have set us off on a whole different path of inquiry into some of that malfeasance. I don’t know — it takes time, it takes resources, and, ultimately, it takes distribution mechanisms to get this to the public, and it takes a willing public. But none of these problems that we’re talking about will be solved like any other social ill — I mean, if there’s to be change, it’s going to require years and years of sustained pressure from the public — pressure on public officials. And in the context of Alberta, it’s worth mentioning that — and everyone agrees, all your police chiefs, everyone agrees on the need to dramatically rewrite the Police Act, which is a decades-old document that everyone sort of points to as, like, “Well, we can only do so much internally at these departments. Really, what we need to do is rewrite the Police Act so we will be legally compelled to make these changes.”
Kate: On July 15th, Calgary city councillor Druh Farrel mentioned on Twitter that, during one negotiation with the Calgary police service — this was during the early 2000s when Dave Bronkonye was mayor — the Calgary Police Service sent 300 armed officers to stand in Council chambers. She was discussing your documentary and implied that CPS was being intimidating. Do you think that Calgary City Council can make substantial changes to the culture of the Calgary Police Service?
Robinder: I really want to talk about unions, and — we know that the Calgary Police Station has been hindering attempts at reform. We know that their public and long-standing dispute with Roger Chaffin, when he was trying to name more officers who were charged with crimes, boiled over; and essentially, Roger Chaffin ended up leaving three years into a five-year contract. The president of the Calgary Police Association at the time, Les Kaminski, was himself charged with perjury and assault. Those charges were later stayed by the Crown prosecution, but he wanted to, at his first press conference, to have an intimidating show of force, which really brings to mind this 300 armed officers, to basically say, “We’re here, you can’t push us around anymore. We’re the union for the Calgary Police.” And I think if, you know — there have been articles that have come out recently that have really talked about why police unions in particular are problematic unions, and why it may be a bad idea to have police unions at all. Because they are, after all, people who are the ones with a monopoly on violence in our society, and they’re entrusted with a very high degree of use of force, and it doesn’t really seem to make sense that unions can shut down reform that citizens are asking for. And I think the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the City Council of Calgary making those changes will probably end up being the Police Association. And perhaps their new leadership — Les Kaminski has since left — perhaps their new leadership will take a more progressive view and realize the writing is sort of on the wall and that they have to make some changes and concessions to how things have been done, but there’s no guarantee there. And, as we’ve seen in cities in the States as well, the police unions, at every opportunity, stand in the way of reforming both officer behaviour and, generally, culture of the police force because they don’t want to be controlled. And they feel that their jobs are extremely dangerous — as we know, they are not in the top ten most dangerous jobs in Canada or in the States, they are far off that list, but the claim is that the jobs are very dangerous and there’s a sort of special status that policing has in our society, that it can’t be understood by civilians. And I think that mentality has to shift, and until that happens, I don’t think Calgary City Council really stands a change at changing the CPS.
Kate: Mhm. And I think what I would argue, to your point, Robinder, there, is — I actually think what you describe is less about the function of their unions — which I think should, frankly, should be kicked out of the rest of the labour movement — and more about the cultural and political capital that the police have in our society and their extremely insular commitment to one another that just does not exist in any other type of profession. I’ve seen a lot of discussion about police unions, and what I think is really interesting about them is that, if you read a police union’s collective bargaining agreement, it’s very similar to the one that, you know, maintenance workers at the city have, but obviously maintenance workers at the city are not a massive obstacle to having a good society and are not massive perpetrators of violence and of racism. So I think there’s something — I think police unions are the way in which that insular commitment to one another, in the way that they never have public disagreements and always display a really public united front, the police union is a representation of it. But I don’t think it has created it out of thin air.
Marc: Yeah, I mean, the whole brotherhood and the blue code of silence, and all these — I mean, they’re —
Marc: — they’re cliches because they’re so prevalent, I think. You know, just this broader question to do with: can the Calgary City Council, etc — I mean, at the end of the day, it’s like, “Wait a minute — don’t these people work for us?” That is supposed to be the idea. I think that one of the factors that doesn’t maybe get talked enough about— and if you look at stats produced by Calgary Police Services in recent years — is officer morale in the department has just been plummeting. And what that points to is that — among other things, perhaps — is that, again, this current sort of system that we’re dealing with, and what police officers are sort of designed to do, or what they’re expected to do, how they’re trained, all these things, and how people are responding, I mean, it doesn’t seem to be serving the public, and it doesn’t seem to be serving the officers. There’s a bit that’s not in the film, but that’ll be in the feature film, in our interview with Mark Neufeld, where he just talks about — and this is so telling, oh my god — he talks about, “Go back 20 years —” and this is, he was at Edmonton Police in the period in question, that’s where he was for most of his career — he says, “Go back 20 years or whatever, we had so many applicants; we could just really choose the creme de la creme of the applicant pool.” He says, “Nowadays, there are so few people coming to apply, and they’re taking people that they would have, prior, turned their noses up.” I mean, can you imagine? What an admission. Good god. All of which goes to say, too, it’s like — this once upon a time was such a desirable job, you have so many people coming — I mean, again, there’s not that many other things you can come in with a high school degree and go make a six-figure salary in short order. So —
Robinder: I’ll point out that the training for CPS is 27 weeks. I mean, I think that now is really the time to be asking this question: is that enough training? It certainly doesn’t seem like enough training to me to be learning how to use a weapon, to be hopefully doing some sorts of ethics courses, to be examining all of these different components that they’ll have to their positions, whether it’s doing investigations, all sorts of other — and yes, there’s on-the-job training, but we’ve seen many times that that on-the-job training falls quite short of what would be ideal. And I really think that, yeah — the notion that you can be a police officer after six months of training is really nuts, actually, because there’s clearly way too much to the job, and the results speak for themselves in terms of how many people in Calgary, certainly, have been shot and killed and died in custody and been abused and been beaten. So, at the very least, we should be talking about that, as well.
Marc: Oh, I was just going to say — and that was something that came up again — we spent a long time talking to Roger Chaffin, and he had a lot to say that I think was valuable. For example, on the need to professionalize the police — like, what would that mean? I was talking recently with someone about what is required to become a police officer in Korea — I mean, that’s like a four-year university degree kind of thing. In Canada, we don’t have standards across the country. Ontario, for example, has its own kind of academy where you’re pooling resources, ostensibly trying to train people. In Alberta, there’s nothing like that. So say you’re a reserve or a small, like, Camrose, you know — Neufeld comes from the Camrose Police Department. So it’s like, where are those officers getting trained? It’s just — again, what kind of system is this? We need cohesive, I think, federal guidelines; or, at the very least, provincial standards across the board. But it seems to me — I mean, Canada, you know, it’s a big country — physically, as we know it’s not a big country in terms of population — it seems to me pretty logical, maybe we just need a national policing school where you really have, again, those higher standards and a more robust curriculum. It’s just this piecemeal approach that we have now seems to be setting us up to fail.
Kate: If people want to find out more about your work or see the film Above the Law, where can they go to do so?
Marc: If you’re in Canada, you can watch Above the Law through CBC Gem — basically, just through their website or in one of those funny things on your computer. You can also — it’s just as of today on their YouTube channel as well. The pending feature film No Visible Trauma hopefully will be at, like I said, a film festival near you starting in the fall, and then, likewise, hopefully will be online within the year, perhaps as early as next spring. So “abovethelawdoc” is the handle for the socials.
Kate: Robinder, Marc, thank you so much for joining us here on The Alberta Advantage to talk about your recent documentary that aired on the CBC about the Calgary police, Above the Law. Thanks so much for listening, and take care out there. Bye, everyone.
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