Mamadi Fara Camara spent six nights in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. But, judging by the reaction of Police Chief Sylvain Caron last Thursday, you would think Camara owed the police an apology for inconveniencing them.
I watched the presser — hastily called at the end of the day — in mild disbelief, as Caron came out, metaphorical guns swinging, clearly uncomfortable. It was mere hours after Montreal mayor Valerie Plante’s own presser, where she demanded an independent and neutral investigation, urged the provincial government to include the SPVM in Quebec’s body camera pilot project for SQ police officers and asked some uncomfortable questions.
“What happened? Where did it go wrong? Why did it take all that time, and a lot of people are asking, ‘Is it because he was Black?’ Did it contribute because he was racialized?”
Mayor Plante was the first and only official at the time to call Camara what he was: innocent, and directly apologize to him and his family for what he had gone through.
Her critical stance didn’t sit well with Caron. Asked by reporters about her statement, he was quick to dismiss them and say that “he hadn’t had time to watch it.”
To me that quick dismissive retort was indicative of precisely the kind of smug arrogance in our police force that needs to change. It does a disservice to officers working hard to establish trust with the communities they are entrusted with serving and protecting.
It was obvious that Caron had been forced to come out at 4:30 p.m. that day because Plante’s statement had put the SPVM on the defensive. His answers were curt and unapologetic, defiantly telling reporters he would apologize to Camara, but later… “at the appropriate time” when the “complex and delicate” investigation had concluded.
Caron’s attitude was only the tip of the iceberg. The following day, the president of the Police Brotherhood (the SPVM’s union) issued a statement that accused Mayor Plante of “political interference.” Yves Francoeur, sounding like a cliché union guy straight out of the ’70s, strong-arming his way through City Hall with brazen intimidation tactics, issued a statement chastising the mayor and accusing her of contributing to “harming the social climate.” He concluded by urging her to, in the future, “behave in a more responsible manner.” You’d think he was talking to an eight-year-old caught fighting in the playground and not the mayor of a major metropolis.
The letter was dripping with contempt and toxic machismo. It did absolutely nothing to dispel public perceptions of law enforcement as an insular, opaque organization that circles the wagons, protects its own and prioritizes a code of silence. Considering the SPVM’s long-standing image problems, eroding public trust in its members, and the many public racial profiling and police brutality cases that have chipped away at its reputation over the years, this is not the way Francoeur should be responding to legitimate criticism.
Francoeur, by the way, did the same to Denis Coderre when he was mayor. He is a pro at this kind of public posturing. It’s aimed at communicating to his officers that he’s got their backs but does nothing to dispel citizens’ fears that they don’t have ours. This is also the same man who in 2014 is on record as saying during a Radio-Canada interview that “Montreal police officers are not immune to the possibility of an attack because of the city’s multi-ethnic character,” so forgive minority groups if they’re a little suspicious of systemic bias in the force.
By Friday evening, the lab results came back completely exonerating Camara and forcing Caron to issue an apology for the “inconvenience.” I don’t know about you, but inconvenience is when I run out of coffee, not when I’m violently arrested and jailed for close to a week because the police refuse to listen to my version of the story or take a week to review the tape absolving me of a crime I didn’t commit because they’re so certain they caught the right guy.
Camara happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time. Given the extraneous circumstances of the attack, no one is arguing that he perhaps shouldn’t have been initially arrested. That’s not the part where systemic racism came into play. It’s everything that happened afterwards that brings home that message. The evidence didn’t justify the length of his unwarranted arrest, the premature charges laid against him or the fact that his face was plastered everywhere, allowing every racist on social media to sully his name even further.
Police arrested him and charged him based on circumstantial evidence and on the statement of the attacked police officer. They chose to prioritize their colleagues’ insistence that Camara was the attacker, despite another eyewitness corroborating Camara’s story (another immigrant with an accent, so I can’t help but wonder how much credence his version was given) and, despite the fact many Parc Ex residents have come forward to cast doubts on this police officer’s own credibility. Officer Sanjay Vig has been sanctioned for breaching the police ethics code in the past, with incidents involving illegal arrest, illegal force and homophobic slurs. Is his past of relevance in Camara’s case? I don’t know. The point is he and his version of that night’s events should not be beyond reproach just because he’s a police officer.
The complicity of internal bias
And then you have Camara. Here was a Ph.D. student working night shifts as an Uber driver, a married man about to be a father of twins, a man with no criminal record whatsoever who remained at the scene of the crime and even called 911. How is it that his version of events was not treated as equally credible? How was it that the investigators were able to convince the prosecutor to move forward with such a flimsy case when they’re supposed to have all their ducks in a row before charges are even laid? Is it because one of their own had been attacked and a culprit needed to quickly be found?
Why had his home been ransacked, his pregnant wife harassed, Camara violently arrested and let go of his job at the university? Where was his presumption of innocence?
Politicians and civil rights groups are right to demand an independent inquiry. Pundits claiming that activists are pushing an agenda in demanding transparency or that they risk upsetting some fragile social harmony could not sound more comfortably oblivious.
“The SPVM told us about a case that is of exceptional complexity, but I would denounce this case as an example of exceptional complicity,” Marlihan Lopez, a Black Lives Matter activist, told me. “Complicity on the part of the police, on the part of our institutions and mainstream media which reproduce dehumanizing and racist rhetoric that endanger our communities.”
People calling out systemic racism are always portrayed as the rabid, unreasonable PC police, and the overwhelmingly white and homogenous establishment as the objective and nuanced keepers of some sort of higher unbiased truth and professional rigour. The facts often prove otherwise.
Accountability and transparency
I would have much preferred if Chief Caron had just come out and said, “We screwed up, I’m sorry. It happens. We’re human.” Given the circumstances, a lot more people would have understood that. There are still far more citizens willing to give the benefit of the doubt to law enforcement than there are those who don’t.
But that’s not what they did. They doubled down and circled the wagons, they reacted with impunity, so high on the adrenaline of fear incurred by a possible attempted murder of a police officer that they didn’t even allow for this man to be presumed innocent before he was found guilty. They flipped the justice system on its back and decided to work backwards. He would be guilty until found innocent. And even then, an apology, an admission of fault, an inquiry into why things derailed the way that they did would not be forthcoming. And when it did come, it would be like pulling teeth, grudgingly and resentfully given, as if to admit fault would weaken them. As if their inability to admit wrong-doing isn’t already the Achilles heel they refuse to recognize.
The SPVM has long been the target of accusations of racial profiling, systemic racism and demands from civil rights groups for more transparency, more training and more cameras. Every single reaction in response to this botched investigation — from the Chief of Police to the President of the Police Brotherhood — has only made their detractors’ cases stronger. ■
Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.