Punitive action needed for police brutality
Calgary Police Service is not immune to the world’s growing rage against police officers
Next to COVID-19, arguably the biggest story in 2020 has been the public outcry against police brutality.
The videotaped killing of George Floyd — a 46-year-old Black man who died after having his neck kneeled upon for almost nine minutes in Minneapolis, Minn., on May 25 by a white police officer — was the final straw, the catalyst that caused growing rage to erupt against the seeming impunity with which police the world over are able to harm the citizens they are sworn to protect.
Black Lives Matter protests, as well as many rallies calling for the defunding of police, took place across the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and in many countries in Africa, decrying police brutality and the lack of accountability for officers who commit crimes or use excessive force.
It's important to point out that the vast majority of police officers are honourable people who became officers to help others and aid in the delivery of justice. They are, very often, heroic, courageous, compassionate and helpful. But even though bad cops are in the minority, the power entrusted to every sworn officer means the amount of damage one poorly trained, power-hungry, or unstable cop can cause is immense.
The Calgary Police Service is not immune and with the ubiquitousness of video ordinary citizens have come to realize that a police officer's version of events often doesn't match what video shows.
On Dec. 10, Alberta Provincial Court Judge Michelle Christopher found Const. Alex Dunn guilty of assault causing bodily harm in connection with his Dec. 13, 2017, assault on Dalia Kafi, a petite Black woman, whose hands were cuffed behind her back when she was thrown to the cement floor of the Calgary Police Service's arrest processing unit, causing her head to bounce on the floor.
Staff Sgt. Gordon Macdonald testified that, “I advised him that it was the worst use of force that I had seen.”
Despite that, Dunn was at first suspended with pay for one year and then brought back to work at a desk job.
Why wasn't he fired immediately or at least when Calgary's current Chief Mark Neufeld was sworn in, in June 2019?
In a written statement, Neufeld stated: “In general terms, when it comes to relieving a police officer with or without pay, I am required to follow certain legal procedures outlined in the Police Act. This Act also outlines that an officer can only be relieved without pay in `exceptional' circumstances and there is limited guidance in case law to determine what meets that threshold. We are encouraging the provincial government to provide further clarity around when an officer can be suspended without pay in the upcoming Police Act amendments.”
Why, one has to wonder, is Neufeld getting paid the big bucks — about $300,000 a year — if he's incapable of determining an exceptional circumstance? And if not him, whom?
Staff Sgt. Macdonald certainly testified that what Dunn did was exceptional in his 30 years of policing. Now that Dunn has been convicted (he's awaiting sentencing), he has at long last been suspended without pay. No more fully paid one-yearlong vacations for him. But he's still a police officer, technically. Perhaps it's time our police chiefs showed some courage and started making case law.
This all begs the question, if Dunn can assault a 120-pound woman with her hands handcuffed behind her back in front of witnesses, under glaring lights
and CCTV cameras, what was his conduct like in the shadows?
Is the boldness with which he criminally assaulted Kafi indicative of just how widespread the assaulting of civilians in police custody is?
“There's not more police violence; there's not more excessive force situations or abuse of authority misconduct by police officers in the last three or five years; it's just being exposed,” says Tom Engel, a criminal defence attorney in Edmonton and the chair of the policing committee of the Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association.
“Most cops can't stand this kind of behaviour from their fellow officers,” says Engel.
“Reports show that one of the worst things to destroy morale in a police service is police seeing that misconduct from fellow officers goes unpunished and there's no accountability. They see these officers being promoted and they know that they're powerless to do anything about it,” says Engel.
As for promotions, Pat and Irene Heffernan — the grieving parents of 27-year-old Anthony Heffernan — are “dismayed and disgusted” that one of the five officers who attended a wellness check on the youngest of their five children on March 16, 2015, at the Super 8 hotel in northeast Calgary, has been promoted even though he is yet to face a disciplinary hearing into the matter.
“Police Chief Mark Neufeld promoted Sgt. Lon Brewster to Staff Sgt. effective Nov. 18,” they complained in a recent letter to the editor — a fact confirmed by the Calgary Police Service.
“As Anthony's parents, we find it egregious that Brewster has been promoted before the disciplinary hearing has taken place,” they wrote. “In what other organization would somebody be promoted while facing a disciplinary hearing? How can this hearing be unbiased when the chief is the person in charge of the hearing process?”
Excellent questions; lousy answers are forthcoming.
Reached at their Prince Albert, Sask. acreage, the retired school teachers say their son was an extremely hard worker — an electrician who was studying towards becoming a master electrician when the pressure of full time work and studying got to be too much.
Their “bright, generous and loving” son relapsed into using cocaine.
Anthony Heffernan worked mostly in Fort Mcmurray, but when he was in Calgary he lived with his best friend and older brother Grant, who would not have approved of his brother using drugs. So, Heffernan checked into the hotel off of Barlow Trail and 32nd Avenue for one night.
Heffernan was minding his own business, not making any noise and not hurting anyone but himself, when five fully armed Calgary Police officers — performing a “wellness check” — kicked in his door, Tasered him twice and shot him four times — all within 72 seconds of first breaking into his room.
Heffernan had been unresponsive to phone calls and knocks on the door, while also missing his checkout time, so a hotel clerk had called the police.
He was shot three times in the head and once in the torso by Const. Maurice Mcloughlin — who discharged his firearm six times, because a disoriented Heffernan was said to be holding a lighter and a syringe. The syringe, as it turns out, didn't even have a needle — something that should have been easily visible in that small hotel room.
The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), which investigates events where serious injury or death may have been caused by police, recommended that criminal charges be laid, but the Crown prosecutors' office declined to do so, saying “there was no likelihood of conviction.”
The other officers involved — Const. Carl Johns, Const. Sandeep Shergill, Const. Robert Brauer and Brewster — still face a disciplinary hearing, that has shamefully still not been scheduled almost six years later. This is described as “due process” by the CPS.
Mcloughlin resigned from the CPS, which means he avoids the disciplinary hearing and as a result will maintain a clean record should he want to apply to another police service.
A little more than 10 months after killing Heffernan, Mcloughlin was one of three officers involved in the shooting and killing of partial quadriplegic David Mcqueen on Jan. 25, 2016.
So, how is it possible that the senior officer present when Anthony Heffernan was killed was promoted, even though he hasn't faced his disciplinary hearing?
“Previous and ongoing conduct matters weigh heavily into promotion decisions and are considered in the context of the officer's overall performance history,” the Calgary Police Service said in a written statement. “We consider factors like when the incident occurred, what their role was in the incident, whether there is a pattern of misconduct or incompetence, and whether they have demonstrated a commitment to our values over their career.
“In this case, the officer has demonstrated a strong commitment to policing and the community over his 14-year career and has not faced discipline before or since this incident.”
Sadly and tellingly, the Heffernan family — which is suing the CPS in a civil suit — is no longer surprised by any of this.
“There has been zero accountability for our son's killing,” says Irene. “There's still no date for the disciplinary hearing.”
The 94-page ASIRT report, obtained through a Freedom of Information request by Engel, concluded: “What was evident from the interviews with the first responders is that there was little conversation relating to the formation of a plan as to what they were going to do once access was gained into the suite.”
No plan, but three of the five officers had their guns drawn on a wellness check.
At least 23 Canadians have been shot and killed by police in the first six months of 2020, many during wellness checks. Clearly, police are poorly trained in this area.
“ASIRT investigators learned that two of the bullets fired from (Mcloughlin's) pistol travelled in a downward trajectory through Mr. Heffernan's head and into the floor.”
The report goes on to say: “It was learned … that Mcloughlin was pointing the muzzle of his pistol in a downward direction as Mr. Heffernan was falling to the floor.”
Anthony Heffernan wasn't “lunging” towards them; he was falling as a result of being shot.
Heffernan's shooting was featured prominently in a recently released documentary called No Visible Trauma, which highlights disturbing cases of Calgary police officers not being held to account even after a serious assault of handcuffed citizens was caught on tape and formal complaints were lodged.
The documentary, directed by Robinder Uppal and Marc Serpa Francoeur, both of whom grew up in Calgary, won the audience award at the Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF. Docs). A shorter version of that documentary, called Above the Law, ran on CBC, and can be viewed on Youtube. They have started a Gofundme page, to help fund their legal defence from a police officer who is suing them.
It's a must see for citizens who want our police service to serve the cause of justice and not pervert it.
In the meantime, Alberta Justice Minister and Solicitor General Kaycee Madu says he's intent on modernizing the Police Act.
Madu, the first Black justice minister in Canadian history, has held meetings with stakeholder groups, including cultural communities, throughout the fall. The meetings included discussions about complaints processes, officer discipline and civilian oversight. As well, those topics are covered in an online public survey that's part of the Police Act review, which is currently open until Jan. 4.
“The Police Act has gone largely unchanged since it was introduced in 1988, and this review will help modernize policing and respond to Albertans' expectations that police remain accountable to the communities they serve,” Madu said recently.
The Heffernans just want the police brutality to stop and for accountability to occur when it does happen.
“We miss Anthony every day,” says Pat. “Every day is very tough. To lose a child is the most difficult thing. We don't wish it on anyone.”