Violence, abuse of power by Calgary Police exposed in new documentary

Jul 10, 2020

Violence, abuse of power by Calgary Police exposed in new documentary

Very early on a frigid December morning in 2013, Godfred Addai-Nyamekye, a Ghanian immigrant, was brutalized by the same Calgary Police Service (CPS) constable who had attended his 911 call for help. Eighteen months later, Cst. Trevor Lindsay would again brutalize another handcuffed detainee, Daniel Haworth, fracturing his skull in the violent takedown. In 2017, Lindsay was convicted of aggravated assault against Haworth, and is currently awaiting sentencing.

Those two cases, along with the police-killing of Calgarian Anthony Heffernan in 2015 during a “wellness check,” are the subjects of a new documentary titled Above the Law. It premieres July 11 on CBC at 8:00 p.m. and will stream for free on the CBC Gem App.

By releasing it amidst calls to #DefundThePolice, the directors hope to contribute to conversations about “whether or not these institutions are functioning appropriately,” considering their constant systemic failings.

“We should be open, as a society, to have these conversations about what is and isn’t necessary,” Robinder Uppal, one of the two Calgary-born directors, told the Media Co-op following a special screening of the film.

‘Fearing for my Life’

Addai-Nyamekye, who is Black, was driving some friends home from a party, as he was the designated driver, when their car got stuck in the snow sometime after 3:00 a.m. on Dec. 28. The group got out to inspect the situation. Not long after, a police vehicle pulled up, and Constables Ben Donockley and Kyle Kwasnica stepped out.

Eventually, the two cops along with Sgt. Clint Grabowski, who had by then arrived, took Addai-Nyamekye to the ground, splitting his lip open.

They then shoved him into their car and drove him to a then-under construction site, three kilometres in the opposite direction from his home, and left him there. The weather that night was -28C, and Addai-Nyamekye was only wearing a light shirt and tracksuit. It was approaching 4:00 a.m.

“I was fearing for my life,” he recalls in the film. "I couldn’t call a taxi at that time because my phone was dead, but I had a friend’s phone that he had dropped when I went to go pick them up. My only option was to call 911."

Audio from the CPS obtained by the filmmakers reveals Donockley had called dispatch to tell them to ignore Addai-Nyamekye when he calls 911 asking for help, describing him as a “drunken fool.”

Addai-Nyamekye therefore had to call twice, because the first time the operator tells him, “Call a taxi. 911 is not a taxi,” following Donockley’s orders, and hangs up on him. After Addai-Nyamekye’s second attempt, a different cop, Lindsay, arrived on the scene. About 15 minutes had elapsed since Addai-Nyamekye's first call.

Addai-Nyamekye was tasered three times by Lindsay before a police helicopter arrived to capture the rest of his beating on camera. In the footage, shown in the film, Lindsay can be seen pulling Addai-Nyamekye up from the cuffs. Addai-Nyamekye falls on his back and Lindsay falls on top of him.

The rest of the video shows Lindsay violently punching Addai-Nyamekye on the head, then repeatedly kneeing him in the back, head and neck. Addai-Nyamekye can be heard yelling for help, yet it is he who ends up being charged with assaulting a peace officer.

Lindsay has never been charged criminally in relation to this attack.

A visibly upset Addai-Nyamekye retells the story in the film, pausing as he describes the events that have caused him Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“This is where he almost ended my life,” he says, shuddering as he points to the street where Lindsay brutally beat him.

‘Lies are being exposed'

Addai-Nyamekye filed a complaint within a month. In it, he also mentioned being treated roughly at the CPS Arrest Processing Unit facility. As per subsequent clarification and complaints, he recalls having been roughed up while in custody, including having his face pressed against the wall once inside the elevator, which has CCTV cameras.

That video, however, has been deleted.

The CPS claims that's standard procedure for footage older than 13 months, and that the footage was not flagged for preservation in response to the initial complaint.

But Addai-Nyamekye insists that, had the CPS taken his complaint against Lindsay seriously, “maybe [Daniel] Haworth's case wouldn’t have happened," he told the Media Co-op, referring to the man whose skull Lindsay fractured in 2015.

“But they ignored my complaint and let  him out on the streets, and he goes around and does it again.”

The CPS investigation into Addai-Nyamekye's complaints against Lindsay and the other officers has still not been completed.

The only disciplinary action taken to date has been against Cst. Kwasnica for not having taken notes of his participation in the initial detention and transportation of Godfred. Improper note-taking of this nature is a violation of section 19(1) of the Police Service Act. There have, as yet, been no consequences for the actual actions taken by these officers.

Tom Engel, Addai-Nyamekye’s current lawyer, who’s been practicing criminal law in Alberta for nearly four decades, says these are all-too-common problems within the CPS.

"The complaints are drawn out" he told the Media Co-op in a phone interview, adding that even the appeal process for dismissed complaints "can take years."

The result is most complaints go nowhere.

Addai-Nyamekye's case, however, became "unique," said Engel, because it triggered a public inquiry by the Law Enforcement Review Board (LERB) – the second ever in Calgary.

"And that's very significant," he explained, because it's a direct investigation into the "cover up" of the "corrupt investigation by the Calgary Police Service."

At trial, Addai-Nyamekye was acquitted of assaulting Lindsay (then with the help of a different lawyer). In large part thanks to the helicopter video and the 911 call, the judge found that Lindsay and Donockley were not credible.

"In Addai-Nyamekye’s case, [the videos and call] were absolutely crucial, and they exposed the [CPS’] lies," Engel said, adding that in cases of excessive use of force, cops routinely “make false reports.”

“It used to be that they could get away with it because judges would believe them, and it was their word against somebody who was being arrested. Now, that's not happening as much anymore. The lies are being exposed."

In 2016, Addai-Nyamekye sued Lindsay, the other officers involved that night, and the crown prosecutor.

But unlike the case the police had brought against him, which went to the courts within 18 months, his lawsuit remains unheard.

This entire saga has left Addai-Nyamekye suffering from PTSD and unable to hold down a job due to debilitating back pain resulting from the beating. Consequently, he’s been unable to financially support his family in Ghana as much as he used to when he was working full time. He has also had to drop out of school, as he was beginning his studies to become a heavy-duty mechanic. His friendships have also suffered.

“I can’t enjoy life like I used to,” a soft-spoken, 32-year-old Addai-Nyamekye said.

It has also eroded his trust in Canada’s justice system.

“The officer is still a member of the [CPS], so I don’t believe in the system,” he said. “It’s been six and a half years and nothing’s been done about it. So, I don’t believe in justice out here.”

Engel says the cops who brutalized Addai-Nyamekye that night "should be criminally charged with kidnapping, assault, assault with a weapon and obstruction of justice" under Alberta’s Police Act. Those who were involved in corrupting the investigation of his complaint should also be criminally charged with obstruction of justice.

"And they should all be fired," he said.

"Sadly,” he added, "given my experience with the accountability process in Alberta, that is not what necessarily (will) happen."

An Exposé

At first, the Calgarian filmmakers thought of looking at cases involving the Toronto Police Service (TPS), since there are twice the number of people in that city and therefore, presumably, more cases.

But soon, the CPS’ “infamous distinction” for having an “outlandishly high number of [police-involved] shootings” became a focal point, said co-director Marc Serpa Francoeur in the interview.

“I don’t think we started to do an exposé on the [CPS].... It just became that...after we saw scandal after scandal coming out.”

Calgary cops often shoot and kill more people than their counterparts in other major Canadian cities. In 2018, in fact, the numbers were even higher than Chicago and New York city, which have populations approximately two and six times larger, respectively, and higher than Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Winnipeg and Edmonton combined.

“So, it just snowballed for us,” Serpa Francoeur said, “and we basically got confirmation over time that, yes, in fact, this was the department to look at.”

“We were pretty ignorant, and blissfully so, that things were fine in Calgary and that there weren’t any of these systemic issues,” added Uppal.

But after seeing “case after case...coming out,” it was impossible to ignore the signs, he added.

“We went in as somewhat blank canvases and came out with [enough research and cases] to really give you pause and consider what’s going on here.”

Engel confirms that while issues of corruption, lack of accountability and transparency are not unique to the CPS, those cops certainly "stand out."

"Their investigators are negligent and biased," he said. "They stand out in terms of the seriousness of that problem, or their investigative process being infected by that problem."

According to Engel, the CPS “got away with it for far too many years” because nobody was paying attention.

Now, facing public scrutiny and the full weight of associations like the Edmonton Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association, whose policing committee Engel leads, “they’re not getting away with it anymore.”

One of the major issues uncovered has been the “broken and inadequate” accountability system built into the CPS, said Uppal. “Specifically...the professional standard section and the internal complaint process.”

By Design

In the film, Engel laments that “a lot of crown prosecutors get the mistaken impression that the police are part of the team.”

He describes this a “failure” of the “checks and balances system” because it means there is “pressure brought to bear in any case where police conduct is at issue, including cases where the police have brought the charges against a citizen.”

"For many years," he added in the interview, even Judges tended to put too much trust in officers and had "too much respect for the badge."

Civilian oversight is also an issue, considering that nearly 100 percent of investigators in the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) “are either present or former police officers,” Engel said. A Sask Dispatch investigation, republished by the Media Co-op, found that cops make up the majority of ‘civilian’ oversight committees across Canada.

This problem was flagged since ASIRT’s inception in 2008 by Amnesty International, which penned a letter expressing concern over their "lack of autonomy and independence,” the Edmonton Journal reported.

“They basically pointed out that the design of ASIRT was flawed right out of the gate,” said Uppal.

To date, ASIRT has only laid 28 charges, eight of them against CPS cops, according to its webpage.

Nevertheless, the organization's objectivity is highly compromised, according to the filmmakers and Engel, and the fact that cops are “investigating each other” has eroded the public’s trust in it, said Uppal.

“It’s possible that they’re totally unbiased, but it certainly doesn’t look good,” he said.

Engel agrees that even the appearances of bias or a conflict of interest has thrown “the administration of police accountability in (Alberta) into disrepute.”

"Are they biased?" he says. "Well, you have to look at the investigation itself to judge… But the problem is the optics. It looks bad to the public."

A practical solution, he said, would be to hire criminal law lawyers with decades of experience who can “pick apart a bad police investigation" and “identify bias.”

“Right now there's not enough of a mix of civilians being involved,” he said.

The filmmakers said they also ran into difficulties trying to access information through FOI requests. Though the legislation is supposed to make government information available to the media and public, “the follow-through on that is very weak,” said Uppal.

“Certainly, that was our experience,” he explained. “We were frequently delayed, denied, redirected, or just told no."

'No looking back'

While the 44-minute film touches on many timely subjects, it is not nearly long enough to discuss the entire gamut of issues within the CPS.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” Uppal said.

Nevertheless, it is a thought-provoking and timely piece that not only helps to give a face and voice to the victims of police brutality in Calgary, but lends its full weight to the wider search for justice across Turtle Island.

“We need to be asking hard questions about whether or not accountability mechanisms in Calgary and beyond in this country are functioning,” Serpa Francoeur said.

While Engel doesn’t advocate for disbanding police forces altogether – an increasingly powerful demand from Black Lives Matter organizers and those behind the #DefundThePolice movement – he agrees the time is nigh to "make a determination of what police should be doing and what they should not be doing.”

“For example, making sure that the default is not the police attending at a mental health problem,” he said, adding that “if police officers can be confident that they can criminally beat people up...and nothing will happen, there’s no deterrent effect.”

For his part, Addai-Nyamekye is circulating a petition to get Lindsay and the other cops who hurt him fired. At the time of writing, the petition has over 2,500 signatures and counting.

Addai-Nyamekye says he feels “hopeful” that the countless protests against police abuse of power happening across Turtle Island will help bring about “big reform in the justice system.” He sees the documentary helping to do that.

“Canadians are very concerned and are sick and tired of police brutality and injustice,” he says. “Hopefully, this documentary will trigger some sort of change...and bring some kind of [personal] relief.”

And though he knows the road to justice is a long one, he sees no end in his resolve.

“[I’ll go] as far as I can go,” he says. “I mean, I came this far, so there’s no looking back, you know?”

UPDATE: A GoFund Me campaign has been created for Addai-Nyamekye to help with legal and physiotherapy fees. Please, donate here.

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