Above the Law (Canada) 95 min. Streaming online at the 2020 Vancouver International Film Festival from September 24 to October 7 at VIFF Connect
There’s no shortage of documentaries about police brutality right now, but No Visible Trauma (previously released on CBC in a shorter 44-minute version entitled Above the Law) is notable for the way it addresses multiple points of the issue.
Five years in the making, Marc Serpa Francoeur and Robinder Uppal’s look at three recent cases of police abuse of authority in Calgary touches on anti-Black racism, wellness checks, and unnecessary use of force—and the way the police’s internal investigations almost never hold officers to account for their misdeeds.
Francoeur and Uppal tell the stories of Godfred Addai-Nyamekye, Anthony Heffernan, and Daniel Haworth, whose encounters with the Calgary Police Service went terribly wrong.
Addai-Nyamekye’s traffic stop in 2013 led to two officers driving him away from his vehicle (and his friends) to a construction site on the edge of the city and leaving him there alone with no shelter against the -28 Celsius weather. Addai-Nyamekye called 911; they hung up on him. Eventually a constable, Trevor Lindsay arrived, told him to stop calling 911—then tasered and beat him.
Though Addai-Nyamekye filed a report, the officers remained on the job—and Lindsay wound up mired in an even uglier case in 2015, when he was caught on camera assaulting Haworth in a parking garage. Haworth, the son of a retired Calgary cop, had been arrested on suspicion of theft and handcuffed; his skull was fractured in the assault, leading to traumatic brain injury.
Heffernan’s case is murkier but no less acceptable: when the 27-year-old electrician and recovering addict relapsed in a Calgary hotel, five police officers arrived for a basic wellness check—leading to Heffernan being shot four times and killed.
No Visible Trauma tells these stories simply and directly, interviewing survivors and families and using security-camera footage of Lindsay beating Haworth to illustrate the brutality of the constable’s assault—and to efficiently refute the self-defense argument brought by Lindsay’s attorney at his trial. (Lindsay was convicted of aggravated assault last June, and is still awaiting sentencing.)
Francoeur and Uppal don’t employ any big stylistic flourishes; they don’t have to. The horrors of police abuse are clear, as is the lip service paid to police reform every time a new case comes up; after all, isn’t the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team tasked with investigating “police officers whose conduct may have caused serious injuries or death”?
Well, ASIRT investigated 71 officer-involved shootings and deaths between 2013 and 2019; charges were laid exactly once. No Visible Trauma shows us how it works, and while the doc allows that the arrival of new chief Mark Neufeld last summer might bring some desperately needed reform…yeah, that’d be nice, but I get the feeling we shouldn’t hold our breath.