Warning: Disturbing content. Discretion is advised
A Canadian documentary that examines the use of force by officers in the Calgary Police Service will screen this week as planned after a judge denied an emergency injunction to stop the film from playing.
No Visible Trauma explores the way Calgary police dealt with three different people: Godfred Addai-Nyamekye, Daniel Haworth and Anthony Heffernan.
The film had its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival and will begin streaming online from Nov. 25 – Dec. 1 through the Calgary Underground Film Festival’s annual CUFF.Docs documentary festival, as well as in-person at the Globe Cinema on Nov. 29.
‘No Visible Trauma’ examines the Calgary Police Service’s “deeply troubled” department
According to a description of the film on the Calgary Underground Film Festival’s website, No Visible Trauma “examines a deeply troubled police department and reveals the devastating consequences of unchecked police brutality.”
“The film exposes a criminal justice system that fails to hold police officers accountable for their actions,” the description concludes.
Speaking to Global News Morning Calgary on Tuesday, co-director Marc Serpa Francoeur said the film took him and co-director Robinder Uppal five years to make.
“He had been through a kind of urban starlight tour in which one group of Calgary police officers had picked him up — apparently without any meaningful due process — abandoned him in -28 C weather, and when he called 911 for help another officer arrived and proceeded to Taser and beat him,” Francoeur alleged. “So that was really disturbing to us.”
“We met Godfred and I remember asking him at the time ‘are you sure you want to go down this road? This might not be a comfortable process to talk about what you’ve been through.’ He said ‘yes.’ He said ‘more than anything I don’t want this to happen to other people.’”
Francoeur said it was a year and a half later that he and Uppal learned about charges laid in a second case involving the same police officer who had Tasered Addai-Nyamekye; Const. Trevor Lindsay.
Video released previously by Haworth’s family shows a handcuffed Haworth being punched in the head three times by a police officer who then throws him to the ground.
“He was left with a fractured skull, a permanent brain injury,” Francoeur said. “So that really compelled us to start taking a bigger look at the oversight mechanisms within the Calgary Police Service and then more broadly at the province.”
“We started to look at shootings, for example, the shooting of Anthony Heffernan — which is sort of a classic in the sense that (it’s a) classically tragic check on wellness gone wrong.”
“We started to crunch some of the numbers and found out, for example, that in 2018 not only had Calgary led all the cities in Canada in terms of shootings, but had actually had more shooting deaths from officers than either the Chicago or New York (City) police departments despite the fact those are much larger cities with far higher rates of violent crime,” Francoeur said.
CPS Chief Mark Neufeld’s reaction to ‘No Visible Trauma’
Speaking to Global News, Calgary Police Service Chief Mark Neufeld said it would be “fair to say” that during the period of time the documentary examines, the CPS “wasn’t actually dealing with the issues of complaints and discipline maybe as strongly as we could be.”
“So you’ll see that when that happened in 2017, the recommendations from the inquiry were actually accepted by the Calgary Police Service – and in fact, I think there was an apology to the public for some of the things that had led to that.
“Since that time, we’ve seen some changes in a number of practices that took place immediately, (practices) that were questionable and that the LERB said needed to be addressed,” Neufeld added.
“Since my time here, one of the things I’ve done, is I’ve actually moved or reorganized the organization so the professional standards (section) reports directly to me. Every week, the professional standards investigators have (a) FaceTime with myself and all four deputy chiefs as well as our HR folks, and we have a look at everything that’s new coming in and give direction in terms of those – and we have a look at everything that’s coming to an end and give direction around disposition.
“We’re completely engaged in the issues of complaints and discipline and we’ve been able to move that along very, very well.”
“I think the other thing that’s obvious is since the time of these cases the Calgary Police Service has implemented body-worn video,” Neufeld added.
“We’re the only major police service in the country to actually have body-worn video as well as the recording devices in our cars. So that was actually done for a number of different reasons but one of them was to enhance transparency and accountability.”
Injunction filed by Const. Christopher Harris
On Monday, Nov. 23, a last-minute emergency injunction against No Visible Trauma was filed by one of the police officers shown in the documentary during another controversial arrest; that of Clayton Prince in 2016.
The documentary includes police dashcam video showing Prince, an Indigenous man, drop to the ground on the lawn outside of Spence Diamonds, lie on his stomach and put his hands on his head.
One of the officers is seen landing on Prince’s back and punching him in the head. Another officer is seen punching Prince before the video cuts out.
Prince suffered broken ribs, a collapsed lung, cuts to his face and other injuries.
In the documentary, the constable, identified in court documents as Const. Christopher Harris, can be heard saying “what you saw here did not happen,” to which the recruit giggles and replies “that’s policy … yeah, I know.”
Subtitles under the video indicate the constable, who is never identified in the film, then says “guys decide to dispense some street justice. If that guy in the white van was videotaping us, this would not do very well because buddy is surrendering, he gets down on the ground, and he gets fed a whole bunch of cheap shots.”
A copy of the affidavit alleged that instead of the word “did,” Harris used the word “should,” saying “what you saw here should not happen” and that the subtitles in the film are wrong.
He asked the court to stop the publication of the film until the subtitle was changed, as well as for $150,000 in damages and a declaration from the filmmakers that the subtitled quote was done maliciously.
Francoeur said the injunction application came as “quite a shock” to him and Uppal.
“It’s in the last few days we found out that we would be facing both a lawsuit and a last-minute emergency injunction which is filed by Const. Christopher Harris, who is a Calgary Police Service officer who appears in the film speaking for something like 20 seconds out of a 97-minute film,” Francoeur said.
“We, of course, will defend all these allegations vigorously. We are adamant and quite confident in our translation and in the proper contextualization of his role in that incident,” Francoeur added.
“I’ll just mention that while he did go on to testify against the officers in that case and was instrumental in getting a conviction of one of them – an assault conviction of James Othen – there are a number of other issues surrounding his behaviour after the incident, including his apparent choice not to submit his notes despite instructions to do so from his superior, partly because – as he testified in court – the fact that he didn’t want to make the other officers look bad.
“It’s been quite a shock to us to receive these allegations. We certainly reject them and will do everything we can to make sure the film continues to screen this week and onwards into the future.”
On Tuesday, a judge denied the injunction because the filmmakers had already blurred Harris’s face and offered to edit the movie to remove the subtitles in question prior to the injunction being filled.
“We’re obviously very pleased that the injunction was rejected,” Francoeur said. “We categorically deny the allegations from start to finish.”
A statement from Calgary police sent to Global News via email explains that they were not involved in the injunction request, nor has CPS reviewed all the details presented in the film for accuracy.
“We have cooperated with the filmmakers throughout the process and believe the film generally raises some fair questions about police oversight in Alberta,” the statement reads.
“We have been working hard over the last few years to reform how we use force and address misconduct. While there is still work left to do, we are not the same service we were even five years ago.
“While the cases in the film highlight very serious issues that need to be addressed, we also know they not the norm for our officers. We have over 600,000 interactions with people every year and fewer than 950 involve force beyond handcuffing and basic physical control. Usually, this force is used during lawful arrests where people are resisting or violent. Fewer than 0.2 per cent of all our interactions result in any misconduct concerns being raised.”
Although the injunction was denied, Harris’s lawsuit is still before the courts.
“We look forward to defending against the allegations in court and establishing incontrovertibly that yes in fact we do have it right both in terms of the word in question and in terms of the broader context,” Francoeur said.
Neither the Calgary Police Association nor Harris’s lawyers have responded to Global News’ request for comment.
– With files from Jenna Freeman