Monday, January 08, 2007

Killer Cops East and West

A worthwhile article in last Friday’s Globe & Mail, by Sheema Khan, about the cop killings of Mohammed Anas Bennis in Montreal and Ian Bush in Vancouver:

A tale of two young men

Globe and Mail Update

About a year ago, I visited my father's grave at a Muslim cemetery in Laval, Quebec. On leaving, I noticed a freshly dug grave.

It haunted me for a brief moment. I then realized why. It was the final resting place of Mohammed-Anas Bennis, 25, who was shot and killed by Montreal police a few days earlier on Dec. 1, 2005.

The circumstances surrounding Mr. Bennis's death were shrouded in mystery. The young man had performed his dawn prayers at a local mosque, and was walking home in the Côte des Neiges district of Montreal. Unbeknown (and unrelated) to him, provincial and municipal police had a warrant to conduct a fraud investigation in the vicinity. According to police accounts, Mr. Bennis approached two officers, and attacked one for “no apparent reason” with a knife. The officer fired back twice, killing him instantly. The police also confirmed the existence of a video recording of the event. Its quality, however, was “too poor” to be of any use.

Mr. Bennis had no criminal record, nor, according to his family, did he have a history of mental illness. He was a “regular Quebecker” who played hockey, joined the marine cadets and did well in school. He was known to be polite, generous, and always smiling. Furthermore, the family found it totally out of character for Mr. Bennis to have carried a knife, let alone attack an officer.

The incident touched a nerve among Quebec's visible minorities.

Mr. Bennis was bearded and wore a Muslim headdress and traditional robe when he was shot — raising the spectre of racial profiling. A month later, a public protest was held in the bitter cold outside Montreal City Hall.

Former immigration minister Denis Coderre joined local activists and community groups demanding an independent inquiry into the death of Mr. Bennis.

In keeping with provincial law, the shooting death was investigated by an outside police force. On April 13, the Quebec City police force concluded its investigation, and submitted its report to the Crown prosecutor. In a terse press release on Nov. 4 — almost seven months later, and almost 11 months after the incident — the Crown announced no charges would be laid. The police had acted in self-defence and the officers were exonerated of any wrong-doing.

Further, the Quebec Minister of Public Security refused to release the police report to the family.

Needless to say, the Bennis family has gone through much heartache in trying to find the truth of what happened. All they have to go on is the original coroner's report that cites Montreal police alleging that Mr. Bennis attacked the police “for no apparent reason.” The family wonders how it is that Mr. Bennis was shot twice at close range, with each bullet entering from above the shoulder and lodging in his vital organs. They wonder about the role of the second officer. The ensuing secrecy has made the ordeal even more painful, fuelling suspicion of a cover-up. Khadija Bennis, Mohammed's twin sister, recently told a Montreal radio station: “We have the feeling that we're being lied to and something is being hidden from us ... It's hard to believe that the system will give us the truth.”

The case bears striking resemblance to that of Ian Bush, who was killed on Oct. 29, 2005, in British Columbia while in RCMP custody. Mr. Bush, 22, was arrested for having an open beer outside a local hockey game and giving police officers a false name. Twenty minutes after his arrest, the RCMP allege the young man “became very violent and attacked [an] officer.” The coroner's report shows that Mr. Bush received a bullet in the back of the head. Audio and video recording equipment in the police station had been turned off. Like Mr. Bennis, Mr. Bush has been described as a nice kid with no history of violence.

The RCMP investigated itself, and asked a local police force to review its results. On Sept. 5 (10 months after the shooting), the B.C. Criminal Justice Branch announced that no charges would be laid. The RCMP officer was exonerated for acting in self-defence. In spite of requests, the investigative report has not been released to the family.

Needless to say, the Bush family is less than satisfied with the results. Like the Bennis family, they, too, want to know what happened to their son. They don't believe the official story, and have been stymied at every step by police secrecy. According to Jason Gratl, president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, “this case is receiving an extraordinary high level of secrecy. We ... are at a loss to explain why. But what we can say is the underlying fact pattern — the bullet in the back of the head — reeks to high heaven.”

The Bush family has decided to pursue the truth by launching a lawsuit against the RCMP, the B.C. Attorney-General and Solicitor-General. In addition, the RCMP Commission for Public Complaints is investigating the case.

In Montreal, the Bennis family is weighing its options. While there is a civilian-run police-review apparatus, it does not investigate police shootings. And while Mr. Bush's death has been raised in the B.C. Legislative Assembly, no Quebec MNA has yet raised the Bennis case in the National Assembly. On Dec. 19, Montreal City Councillor Richard Bergeron, questioning police conduct, demanded release of the police report.

If there is a common thread between the two cases, it is the lack of police accountability in the death of two young men. Two families are grieving, frustrated by police secrecy. In both cases, no independent investigation has been conducted. While Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor has recommended robust oversight of the RCMP, police unions in Quebec have repeatedly rejected calls for the establishment of powerful independent review bodies.

During the Bush investigation, RCMP Staff Sergeant John Ward told The Globe and Mail that “the public doesn't have a right to know anything.” In a democracy, we sure do. It's the system of checks and balances that ensures that all of us — including the police — are acting within the law.

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