The Arabic name Amal has three meanings. Hope, expectation, aspiration. Those three words are a good synopsis of what Pointe Claire resident and Concordia human relations and psychology student Amal Asmar dares to dream of these days after police harassed her, roughed her up and left her with some $1,000 in fines. She hopes for justice; expects an apology and aspires for an answer to her poignant plea of, “all I want to know is why?” As she completes her studies and continues with her job searches, the mental scars she still carries compel her to keep this dream alive. Her “crimes?” Sitting on a bench in front of Alexis Nihon Plaza with her bag on the bench and yelling when police officers twisted her arms and wrists as they hustled her into a police cruiser because of it. She suspects that there may be one other “crime”: that she had the wrong looks, at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Amal, born and raised in Montreal, is perfectly bilingual with no trace of an accent in English or French. She loves to walk her beloved Black Lab Freddy in the parks of Pointe Claire where she often waves to public security officers who ask if all is well when she is out at night. She happens to be of Palestinian origin. Her parents came to Canada from Ramallah seeking a peaceful life. Her tan complexion and piercing dark eyes are framed by black hair worn in long, natural curls. She could be from any Mediterranean country. But, she sports one other distinguishing feature, a keffiyeh — or Arabic scarf. She wears it around her neck as a scarf — not a head dress — out of cultural affinity, not political posturing. In winter, she will pull up part of it around her nose and mouth when there is a strong wind or icy frost as many of us do with our scarves in the cold. And that’s what she suspects may have caught the attention of two police officers on a cold February night. Amal spent the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 3 of this year studying in Concordia’s Webster Library for an important exam the next day. She has to study late because she holds down a part-time job as a companion and caregiver to an elderly Jewish man — a member of what Amal describes as a very “caring” family — who suffers from a psychological disorder. Before she knew it, it was way past midnight Thursday morning Feb. 4. Instead of going home to Pointe Claire, she decided to walk to a friend’s place in lower Westmount, sleep there and get to school early for the exam. It was a cold night, but dry as most of this past winter has been. By the time she had walked from Guy and St. Catherine to Atwater, she was a bit tired and decided to sit down on that now famous bench in front of Alexis Nihon Plaza. She pulled her school bag up onto the bench to look for gloves and left a white plastic grocery sack containing Tupperware and apple juice on the ground in front of her.
She was dressed in casual student attire with dark blue jogging pants, running shoes, a black-and-white ski jacket and a beige ski knit hat. She also wore her keffiyeh… pulled up over her nose and mouth against the cold. As Amal was looking through her agenda for a moment, she noticed that a police cruiser from Westmount’s Station 12 had pulled up. The cruiser had two officers inside. Their names were Champoux and McIntyre.
The officers started questioning her from inside their cruiser. Amal was first asked if there was anything wrong. She answered “no.” They then asked what she was doing there and she answered that she had just sat down to rest and look for something. They then asked to see her ID. At that point Amal asked, “why, have I done something wrong?”
Amal says it was at that point that — without answering — the officers got out of the cruiser, walked over and each stood inches from her on either side. She felt intimidated by their posture and demeanor. They told her that the way she was using the bench was against the law. She asked them what they meant. They answered that a public bench is not a place for placing bags.
Amal then asked what law prohibited her from doing so, since the answer was completely stupefying. Amal says that they again refused to answer and instead told her to stand up because she was being “arrested.” She asked to see their badges. They replied “You watch too much Law and Order, we’re not obliged to show you that.”
Before she could respond, the officers grabbed her and physically removed her from the bench to the cruiser. Amal describes that each one took one of her arms and wrists, twisted them, shoved her against the front hood passenger side of the cruiser with her face against the hood. One of the officer’s hands was around the back of her neck squeezing hard and applying pressure against the spine. The entire time, they each held one arm and continued to twist Amal’s arms and wrists. Amal says she was desperately trying to pull up her head to scream, hoping to attract someone’s attention. The officers then put metal handcuffs on her. Amal continued to yell as she was scared and in excruciating pain. The officers told her to stop yelling. She answered that they were hurting her. They said that they would not stop until she stopped screaming. The officers then frisked her. Champoux allegedly told her that they were looking for weapons.
The officers then put her in the back seat of the cruiser and went through her bag. They found her wallet and ID but continued to search all her belongings. The search took about 15 minutes, during which Amal remained in the backseat of the police car, handcuffed.
As it happened, a vehicle with the word “Supervisor” in French on the window, showed up. Judging by his accent, Amal understood he was Francophone. He spoke to the other two officers in French only. Amal describes him as being around 190 pounds and 6 feet tall. He never spoke directly to her. Amal heard the supervisor ask the two officers if Amal spoke French. They replied no without asking her. As Amal told me, that was a stroke of luck because she could understand everything that was being said without the officers knowing it. They had never asked her.
Amal then heard the supervisor ask the officers why they had “arrested” her. She then heard the officers reply that they had driven up to her and that she immediately started screaming “like a crazy person.” Through the conversation between the officers, Amal understood that about 20 minutes before Amal arrived at Atwater a woman had made a phone call to 911 from one of the payphones nearby, but the officers were not sure where it had originated from. Amal heard the supervisor ask Champoux if he was sure that it was Amal who had called. The supervisor asked Champoux three times. He answered yes each time and added that the voice sounded foreign. The supervisor said okay and left. As reported above, Amal has no trace of an accent.
Champoux and McIntyre then re-entered the cruiser and asked Amal if she had called 911 — they said they were investigating such a call — and whether she had a cell phone, which she did not. In shock and pain, Amal at that point had had enough. She said she had the right to remain silent and said she wanted to speak to their supervisor. The officers’ alleged answer according to Amal was thick with sarcasm. “Yeah, sure,” they said.
Amal then saw the officers go through a booklet and discuss which offences would produce the greatest fines. They then stuffed her belongings back in her bag and tossed it on the ground. They then took her out of the car and removed her handcuffs. They did not even let her retrieve her hat which had fallen in the back even though she asked.
Amal again asked to see their badges and they again refused saying “we don’t have to show you. Our names are on the tickets.” Amal asked “what tickets” because they hadn’t handed her any. Champoux responded that “you’ll find it in your stuff.” They then sped off into the night. Amal began collecting her belongings on the ground. She found two tickets tucked into her agenda.
One ticket was for use of municipal property other than for its intended purpose. $620! The other was for having made a loud noise other than yelling. $420!
Amal’s wrists were hurt as a result of the handcuffs. She also had pain in both arms, shoulders, neck and upper and lower back from the manner in which the officers had handled her. She went to see a doctor at a West Island clinic. The doctor examined her wrists and found that one was strained. He gave her a note to excuse her from her exam. Amal was so shaken up by the incident that she didn’t attend classes for the entire following week.
Though the description of Amal Asmar’s confrontation with police comes in the main from her, many factors lend credence to her version of events even after my talk with Station 12 Commander Stephane Plourde on Monday afternoon.
The first is that, in public statements, the police have not challenged her charges or her version, particularly those of using force. They merely claim that they used it because she was yelling “like a crazy person” at the officers “as soon as they arrived,” as reported in this story. Cmdr. Plourde even repeated that in a CTV television interview. He also agreed, as did Mayor Tremblay in that same news segment, that the fines were excessive. To me, Cmdr. Plourde added that the officers were investigating the 911 call mentioned in the story and had approached Amal just to see if she knew anything because the call supposedly came from a payphone in the area. That call was later deemed by police to be a prank.
Cmdr. Plourde repeated the officers statements about her immediate screaming. I asked him if that was the case, why was Amal not charged with obstructing an investigation or locked up for the night to protect her from herself, instead of being issued irrational tickets with fines that even he found excessive? Cmdr. Plourde paused, then said that the department was still investigating the two versions of the events. He then added that police officers have the discretion whether to issue any charges or fines and what they are to be.
Secondly, the police have failed to explain why they used such force, whatever their reasons were for approaching Amal. Amal is a calm person, but admits to yelling when she was being hurt. Would it be unreasonable for any citizen to yell in frustration when police officers refuse to tell them why they are questioning them or show their badges, and even more so when they are twisting arms? A comment Cmdr. Plourde made to me is very germane to this issue. Though not responding directly to this point, he did say that it takes officers years to acquire the skills to deal with people on the street. Champoux has been a police officer for five years. McIntyre for three.
Third, the very language of the infractions she received undermines any reasonable cause the police may have had for questioning her. Nowhere is there a bylaw that states you cannot put a bag on a public bench. So do the police now decide the interpretation of our laws when they told Amal she could not put a bag on a bench? Is it the police who decide on the particularity of a generality? Is a bag now to be equated with sleeping on a bench? The second ticket was for “emitting an audible noise other than a yell.” Again, is there no restraint of compassionate authority over the decision of a police officer? Are the very officers writing tickets that generate so much revenue for the city going to be the deciders of subjective judgments? I asked Cmdr. Plourde — in light of the recent report that 250 tickets were issued last year for every 1,000 Montrealers — whether it is not time that the police stop being the revenue agency for the civic administration? Again, he answered diplomatically, telling us that with a total of one million police “interventions” last year the department does have its hands full.
Fourth, Officer Champoux told his supervisor, and the department has said the same, that the voice on the 911 call had a foreign accent. Even though Champoux did not know Amal spoke French, he certainly could recognize that Amal had no accent in English. And if he couldn’t discern English accents, his Anglophone partner McIntyre could. Why then would they not tell that to the supervisor?
Finally, the medical exam bore out the signs of excessive force.
It is ironic to remember that some years ago the Montreal police, with the support of elected officials, said they were going to enforce “civility and respect for authority.” Fo Niemi, director-general of CRAAR which guided Amal in her complaint to the Police Ethics Commission, warned Montreal’s Public Security Committee at the time that such a broad and subjective approach would be prejudicial to the rights of all Montrealers but particularly to minorities. His words have proved prophetic. It is unfortunate that police and politicians have not been guided by another prophetic warning from the late American Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who said that, “For the law to be respected, it must first be made respectable.”
I have written often of Montrealers being harassed by an overzealous enforcement of irrational municipal rule and regulation by security authorities. I would rather write less of it. But I am constantly seeing more of it. And too often against visible minorities. We cannot yet answer Amal’s poignant plea of “why?” But whether hers was a case of inexperienced cops, or ones very experienced in filling ticket quotas, this reporter is left with one nagging thought. Would Officers Champoux and McIntyre have bothered a blue-eyed, strawberry blonde with a Burberry scarf around her nose and mouth?