'Above the Law' Filmmakers Address Calgary's Police Brutality Problem

"One of the dramatic downsides of living in the shadow of such a terrible role model is that it allows us, as Canadians, to say, 'Oh, these are American problems, we're fine'"
'Above the Law' Filmmakers Address Calgary's Police Brutality Problem
Documentary filmmakers Marc Serpa Francoeur and Robinder Uppal began working on Above the Law five years ago as a response to multiple incidents of police violence in their hometown of Calgary. At the time, they never could have imagined that it would be coming out at a time when police brutality is the subject of a continent-wide uproar amidst a resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests and calls to defund police.

Above the Law examines police violence through the lens of three specific incidents, two of them perpetrated by the same officer. First is the case of Godfred Addai-Nyamekye, who was abandoned by police in -28°C weather before being attacked by Constable Trevor Lindsay; the second incident is 18 months after that, when Constable Lindsay once again assaulted a handcuffed man in his custody, causing Daniel Haworth a traumatic brain injury. (In 2019, Lindsay was convicted of aggravated assault over the latter incident.) Third is a 2015 "wellness check" that was fatal for Anthony Heffernan.

The film is a stark reminder that unjust policing and a lack of accountability are by no means uniquely American problems, and Canada has its own history of systemic (and often racist) police violence. With Above the Law set to premiere on July 11 at 8 p.m. via CBC Docs POV and CBC Gem, Exclaim! caught up with co-directors Serpa Francoeur and Uppal about the tragic timeliness of their film, and the way forward for policing in Canada.

You've been working on this documentary for years, long before police brutality came under such renewed scrutiny in recent weeks. How has this new context shaped the message and significance of Above the Law?

So many of the issues that we've been concerned about are precisely those that are now being widely debated in the public sphere. We never would have guessed five years ago, let alone five months ago, where the discourse would have advanced to by the time the film was being released. A concept like "defunding the police" was light years from mainstream, but just yesterday, Edmonton announced an $11 million reduction to the police budget spread over two years, with those funds going towards supportive housing. Our work is a small part of a much bigger discussion, but we are certainly optimistic that it will contribute to growing calls for transparency, accountability, and the reevaluation of what policing looks like in this country.

Media coverage on police brutality has often been focused on issues south of the border. How do Canada's issues with unjust policing compare to those we see in the U.S.? In what ways is the issue similar and different?

There is, unfortunately, a lot of overlap between the issues we see in the U.S. and here in Canada. One of the dramatic downsides of living in the shadow of such a terrible role model is that it allows us, as Canadians, to say, "Oh, these are American problems, we're fine" — a factor that has allowed us to put off critically evaluating our own shortcomings. There's a lot of nice talk at a police department like Calgary's around "community policing" and the like, but what we've observed is a lot of "us versus them" mentality. As long as police see themselves as the "good guys" and members of the public like Godfred as the "bad guy" (note Constable Lindsay referring to him as such, shortly after he'd finished tasering and beating him), it seems likely that we're going to see racialized and other marginalized individuals like drug users and those experiencing mental health issues continue to suffer disproportionately at the hands of the police.

What brought the issue of police brutality in Canada, specifically in Calgary, to your attention?

Born and raised in Calgary, we've always maintained an interest in what's going on in our hometown and province. What instigated things for us was when we learned about Godfred's case in June 2015, just after he was acquitted of assaulting Constable Trevor Lindsay — the officer that Godfred alleges, pointing to the video and other evidence, was the one who in fact assaulted him. After reviewing the transcript from the three-day trial, we knew that we had an explosive and deeply troubling story on our hands. In January 2017, when charges came to light against Lindsay for the aggravated assault of an entirely different handcuffed man, the obvious question was, "Why didn't the Calgary Police Service (CPS) respond to the formal complaint that Godfred filed back in January 2014?"

At that point, we really started to broaden our inquiry into looking at wider issues of accountability at CPS and the various provincial oversight mechanisms that are supposed to keep them in check. It was at that point that the Anthony Heffernan shooting also came into focus for us as a tragically quintessential example of the "wellness check" gone wrong. We've been following those threads and others ever since.

What do you make of recent calls to defund or abolish police departments in Canada? What do you see as the way forward for policing in Canada?

We have to do better with our approach to policing in this country, that much is very clear. We cannot afford to be afraid to ask hard questions about how we allocate resources and the kind of results that we're getting. People's lives are on the line and, contrary to what some people think, policing is not a monolith. Many other jurisdictions (the UK are a good example — see the CBC film from a few years back, Hold Your Fire), have demonstrated much more effective forms of "de-escalation" techniques, for example. Perhaps a typical "beat unit" should be one conventional police officer and one social worker, working together. There are many possibilities that the Canadian public and some of their elected officials are continuing to explore and agitate for. 

How have acts of police violence, like the three highlighted in your film, been allowed to continue in Canada without consequence?

The answer to that lies at the feet of the oversight mechanisms, both internal to police departments, and at the provincial and federal level. Just to touch on a few specific examples:

One major issue is the public complaint process. At an organization like the Calgary Police Service, the Professional Standards Section needs to be civilianized — even the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police agree with this and recommended as much in recent years. The current setup is an absolutely sordid example of bureaucratic impasse combined with police policing the police. For example: Godfred's formal complaint, filed in January 2014 — still not resolved. The results? Constable Lindsay goes about his business and gives Daniel Haworth a permanent brain injury in May 2015. And it's not an exception — complaints filed by the Heffernans in 2015 are also far from resolved. In what other public sector would we accept outcomes (or rather non-outcomes) like this? 

Another major flag is the Crown's deferential relationship with the police. Tom Engel and others in the film speak to this point very strongly regarding the general reluctance of Crown prosecutors to bring criminal charges against officers. The apparent double standards we see play out time and again in cases like Godfred's and the Heffernan killing should make any member of the public with even a modicum of attachment to the concept of equality before the law genuinely concerned about the functioning of the justice system with regard to police officers.

Another facet is provincial watchdog organizations like ASIRT, the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team. Many have called attention to the problematic makeup of this body, largely reliant on investigators seconded (i.e. on loan), from the very agencies that are being investigated. Where is the independence? Even if all members of this team are extraordinarily principled individuals who are supremely impartial in their work, you cannot get away from the atrocious optics. For some, the fact that ASIRT, by their own accounting, laid charges in only one of the 71 shooting and in-custody deaths involving police officers that they investigated between 2013 and 2019, may be evidence of the extraordinary track record of the police officers of Alberta. For others, it may speak to very serious defects, particularly with regard to the discretion exercised by the Crown. Critics such as the Heffernans point to the lack of charges resulting from ASIRT's investigation into the killing of their son (one of the 70 cases in those stats that did not result in charges) as an appalling example of the toothlessness of the organization and its dubious independence from the Crown. 

What do you want viewers to take away from Above the Law?

Our goal has always been to do more than preach to the choir, which can be a dishearteningly steep hill to climb when it comes to policing issues. All one has to do is take a look at the comments on the @abovethelawdoc Facebook page to see how deeply polarized our society is around these issues. It's awfully easy to suggest, as many have seen fit to do, that if you don't break the law, you won't have any issues with the police; that the violent acts we see epitomized in the film are simply the just deserts of deviance and criminality. This is all without having watched the film, mind you. Perhaps these individuals, or a loved one, might one day find themselves on the wrong end of an officer's fist, knee, or gun, and change their tune. Maybe, just maybe, some of them might actually watch the film and see for themselves just how flimsy the accountability mechanisms are that supervise police officers in Calgary and beyond. While it's comforting to think that our public institutions are well-designed and functioning as intended, the reality may not always be so rosy when you take a closer look. We didn't make this film for our health or enjoyment. The problems we highlight in Above the Law are serious affronts to the most basic notions of dignity, equality and justice.