Toronto police, at the direction of an Ontario Superior Court judge, have released an internal video which for more than two years the force denied existed, in a case involving the arrest and detention of a paraplegic man who claims he was assaulted by officers and urinated on while in custody.
Udhbirprasaud (Joe) Bhikram was arrested on Jan. 28, 2009, and charged with uttering death threats — charges which he successfully fought and had thrown out.
But for years he has been fighting through formal complaints and freedom of information requests to obtain a copy of a police video, claiming he was assaulted during his arrest, neglected at the station when he fell from his wheelchair onto the floor of a holding cell, and then berated and urinated on by one officer.
Police staff swore affidavits in 2012 insisting the video recording had been erased.
"They told me video was destroyed by another video overplaying this," Bhikram told CBC News from his apartment in northwest Toronto. "What happened now? They got a video?
Bhikram has more recently filed a small claims lawsuit against one Toronto officer, and last week Deputy Judge J.D. Burnside adjourned a settlement conference demanding the Toronto police provide Bhikram "with the video in question."
Toronto police searched again and immediately produced copies of a video, but there are numerous breaks in the recording, where time stamps show significant gaps in images of events in the cells.
The gaps are due to motion-sensitive cameras, said Mark Pugash, spokesman for the Toronto police. Pugash told CBC News that in 2012 when Bhikram originally made a freedom of information request for a copy of the video, staff within the police privacy office made inquiries but were told by police staff at 52 Division "there was not a recording."
The claim at the time was that any video would have been automatically erased after four months.
5-year fight but 'no justice yet'
Bhikram — who suffered a recent stroke and is in a wheelchair — has been relentless in his battle with police. His initial complaint to Toronto Chief Bill Blair was rebuffed by an inspector who claimed Bhikram's "allegations fail to outline any manner of conduct which might lead me to believe that an investigation into the matter is warranted.”
Bhikram, with the help of street pastor Doug Johnson Hatlem and a lawyer, made freedom of information requests, and then appeals to the information and privacy commissioner, all without success.
Then Bhikram represented himself in small claims court, saying he was "too poor" to hire a lawyer.
'The video is still mutilated, tampered with.' —Udhbirprasaud (Joe) Bhikram
Upon receiving the video June 5, Bhikram — who has had a number of run-ins with police, none of which has resulted in a criminal conviction — was crestfallen.
"The video is still mutilated, tampered with," Bhikram told CBC News, fighting back tears. "Without audio to show that I was screaming, moaning and begging for help. And the urination, positive that the cop flicked his penis at me, that's not included in the video.
"They have it and they will never show it, because what happened down there is going to be international if it's disclosed. That's my feeling. That's why I am crying. That's why I haven't got justice yet."
What the video shows
CBC News viewed the video, which involves cameras from two directions. Although Bhikram is in a wheelchair in a holding cell, he is handcuffed and masked. At one point he attempts to stand up to get to a bench and he falls to the floor.
About six minutes of the video is missing, which may be the result of a lack of motion. The camera picks up when the officer comes in to examine the motionless Bhikram on the floor, who claims the fall had cracked his hip.
'He didn’t deserve to be in that jail in the first place.' — Doug Johnson Hatlem, street pastor
Asked why there would not be a continuous camera surveying a cell, Pugash said "there is a live feed enabling officers to observe the cells. Officers are also required to make regular visits to cells and document those visits."
Johnson Hatlem has relocated to Chicago, but he has compiled a documentary about alleged abuses by Toronto police that he submitted to and hopes to show at the next Toronto International Film Festival in September. He was furious that the Toronto police "have finally acknowledged that they have been lying and misleading and stonewalling about the video all this time."
Johnson Hatlem feels the police should be censured for what the video depicts, notwithstanding the gaps.
"It is very serious in my mind," he told CBC News. "It’s similar to the G20 where they left everybody handcuffed inside the cells. It’s outrageous. You have somebody in the cell — we have no record of anybody ever escaping those cells, let alone somebody in a wheel chair with a pretty severe disability — and they leave him in his underwear (which they say was his choice) but with a mask on and handcuffs.
"It’s just unconscionable. And he didn’t deserve to be in that jail in the first place."
Information and privacy commissioner 'disturbed'
The office of the province's Information and Privacy Commissioner issued a statement Wednesday announcing it is reopening the Bhikram file and is now demanding to know why Toronto police claimed for years the video did not exist.
“We were disturbed to learn that a video, requested by Mr. Bhikram in 2012 and which we were advised had been deleted, has now been found by the Toronto Police Service," Trell Huether, spokesperson for the privacy commissioner, wrote CBC in an email. "This comes after multiple searches by the police and the provision of a sworn affidavit to this office stating that the video had been deleted. It appears that the TPS had not undertaken a sufficiently diligent search in response to Mr. Bhikram’s initial request, or during his appeal to our office.
"We have asked the Toronto police to explain why the video could not be located previously as we were informed, and what steps will be taken to avoid a reoccurrence of such an unfortunate event in the future.”
The police spokesman Pugash said in an emailed statement that when police became aware of a recording they notified the privacy commissioner. As for the small claims court case against its officer, Pugash said the constable "denies he assaulted or otherwise mistreated the prisoner. He specifically denies the allegations against him, that he flicked his urine on the prisoner, that he refused to remove the prisoner's handcuffs, that he taunted the prisoner or that he otherwise acted in any wrongful or unlawful way towards the prisoner."
That hearing is expected to resume in mid-July.