Torontoist reporter Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy was assaulted by a police officer during the G20—a case in which charges were dropped this week. She writes about how it has reshaped her view of policing in Toronto.
“Strange.” It’s the word I’ve used most often when trying to sum up my feelings about being assaulted by a Toronto police officer on June 26, 2010, while reporting on the G20 summit. It’s the word I’ve relied on when describing the four-year long criminal proceeding that followed. And it’s the first thing I felt when I learned, on Wednesday morning, that Const. Babak Andalib-Goortani, the officer who was charged in my case, was acquitted of assault with a weapon.
It’s strange that I experienced violence for the first time in my (very lucky) life at the hands of an officer of the law. It’s strange that a photographer happened to be present at that moment and snap a picture. It’s strange that the officer in the photograph was identified by the Toronto Star, after the Toronto Police Service said they did not know who he was.
I saw some truly strange things that day, back in 2010. I watched police officers in riot gear storm into a crowd of people relaxing on a lawn, causing panic. I saw more police officers than I could count beating people on the ground with batons. And as I turned to look behind me, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a short officer with a goatee come toward me with his baton raised. He hit me on my right hip, causing a red and purple welt.
This is the experience I’ve tried to relate, over and over again, during the past four years. I described it to the Office of the Independent Review Director (OIPRD) in my complaint, to the Crown lawyers assigned to the case, and to the pre-trial judge. I tried to explain that what happened to me was not an anomaly. Every officer I saw at Queen’s Park that afternoon—I was reporting from the “designated free speech zone”—had their badge concealed. I saw multiple officers beating people, while others dragged protestors behind barricades and into police vans. I did not observe a single officer stopping the violence.
But that part of my experience did not get very far. I was even instructed by detectives from the Toronto Police Service’s Professional Standards Unit, who investigated the charge against Andalib-Goortani, not to discuss what I saw other officers doing.
There’s a lot about the criminal case that I still don’t understand. Why I was questioned about my complaint only months after the assault by Andalib-Goortani’s TPS colleagues at Professional Standards. Why they refused to allow me to tape that conversation for my records. Why I had to schedule days off work only to be told, at the last minute, that my presence at court was not required. Why the Crown prosecutors sat silently while Andalib-Goortani’s defence attorney Harry Black yelled “fuck” and “cocksucker” at me on the witness stand during the pre-trial cross examination (the cross examination lasted almost an entire day—the transcript is over 80 pages long—and touched on everything from my employment history to my extracurricular activities in high school). And most of all, why my main point of contact throughout the ordeal was not the Crown, or the OIPRD, or Victim Services, but a detective constable at Professional Standards—a non-civilian employee of the Toronto Police Service.
The case hinged on a photograph: one that was taken by a stranger, and uploaded anonymously. After I was sent the photograph by a friend, I submitted it along with my complaint. This week the photograph was ruled in admissible in court because the Crown was unable to locate the person who took and uploaded the picture. It didn’t matter that the visual description I gave of the man who hit me matches Andalib-Goortani. It didn’t matter that a TPS sergeant had identified the man in the photograph as Andalib-Goortani last year. It didn’t matter that a certified forensic video analyst from the Ontario Provincial Police testified that she could find “no visual evidence of image alteration and/or changes to the image structure.” Defence lawyer Harry Black maintained the photograph could have been tampered with—the same defence that TPS Chief Bill Blair used when video footage of Andalib-Goortani assaulting protestor Adam Nobody surfaced (yes, that’s him, too). Andalib-Goortani was convicted in that case. This time, however, that line of defence worked. Without the photograph, the Crown argued that they did not have enough evidence to proceed, and Andalib-Goortani was let go.
But Andalib-Goortani is also just the face of a much larger, more disturbing problem. He’s the scapegoat for a system that teaches police officers that the public are the enemy. He committed acts of extreme violence that weekend, but he wasn’t alone. He was just unlucky—he got caught. One of the arguments in the case regarded the tapes of the orders that TPS officers were given from their superiors that day. I never got to hear them, but based on the behaviour I witnessed on the part of many officers, I can imagine what they say. If Andalib-Goortani had been convicted for assaulting me, it would not have been wrong. But it might not have been fair, either.
In the end, what happened to me is not that strange. It feels that way to me, because it was outside of my range of experience, and not typical for reporters in Canada. But it’s not surprising to the marginalized young men in Toronto who experience racial profiling every day, to victims who have slogged through endless court cases, or to the more than 1,000 people who were beaten, arrested, and detained during the G20—a weekend Ombudsman Andre Marin referred to as the “the most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history.”
Maybe the only strange part of any of this, really, is that nothing has changed. The Special Investigations Unit, which investigates cases of police misconduct resulting in serious injury or death, examined only six incidents from the G20. My injuries, which were deemed not “serious,” became one of the 357 complaints received by the OIPRD. From all of these, only three charges were laid: two against Andalib-Goortani, and one against TPS officer Glenn Weddell, for breaking bystander Dorian Braton’s arm. Weddell pleaded not guilty and was acquitted last year. Andalib-Goortani also pleaded not guilty to assaulting Adam Nobody, but was found guilty in December and sentenced to 45 days in jail. He was released on bail and is appealing the verdict.
Ten days after the G20, when photos and videos of police brutality were flooding the web, 36 of Toronto’s 44 city councillors voted to commend the TPS on “a job well done” over the weekend. In light of the largest mass arrest in Canadian history, Councillor Frances Nunziata (Ward 11, York South-Weston) accused those asking for a public inquiry of being “drug dealers.” Former mayor David Miller applauded the police, saying “[they] did their absolutely level best.”
Almost two years after the G20, Chief Bill Blair admitted that some things “were not done well” during the weekend, but failed actually to apologize. That same year, Toronto Life celebrated Blair as one of “Toronto’s most influential people.” When it was announced that Blair’s contract would not be renewed this summer, the Star drafted a glowing editorial that praised his “compassion, communications skill, sensitivity to Toronto’s ethnic communities and professional integrity.” (Torontoist‘s assessment of his tenure has some greater reservations.)
Just last week, I was in Trinity Bellwoods Park for a work function when I saw a group of police officers from 14 Division surrounding a man in handcuffs. My coworkers told me that before I arrived, they saw the officers knock the man off his bike, and punch and kick him. After questioning and searching him, they wrote him a ticket for running a red light and let him go. He’s currently waiting on X-Ray results for broken ribs and a damaged kidney.
None of this is strange to me anymore. It’s what I’ve learned to expect.
Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy is a former Torontoist contributor and freelance journalist. She currently works as a policy and research co-ordinator in the housing sector.