Montreal mayor calls for independent investigation after attempted murder charges stayed in officer’s assault

Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante said what happened to Mamadi Camara is not acceptable, and she is calling for an independent and neutral investigation as soon as possible -- an idea the police chief said he would welcome.

Camara, a 31-year-old PhD student and Uber driver, was charged with attacking officer Sanjay Vig a week ago, but prosecutors stayed the charges on Wednesday based on "new information" involving Ministry of Transport surveillance footage. Camara was released from detention.

While the charges have been stayed, the investigation into the assault on the officer continues.

But during a press conference Thursday, the mayor referred to Camara as an innocent man.

“The fact that an innocent man was put into jail for no reason, I care, I feel for this person and I do feel for his family as well and I’m sorry for what he had to go through,” she said.

Camara’s lawyer Joanie Chainey agreed with the call for a public inquiry while speaking to reporters Thursday.

She said while her client is feeling relieved, he’s also still in shock and traumatized by his experience.

“He has no priors, it was the first time he was arrested, first time he was detained for a criminal procedure,” she said.

“He did not understand what was going on, he was scared of what could happen to him. He is someone who works, who goes to school, who has a family… so when the declaration from the Crown was made yesterday, he was very relieved that he was getting back home.”

Chainey explained that Camara was stopped by police for a ticket, which is why he had been considered a witness and a suspect.

“We need to remember that all the evidence from this file was circumstantial,” she said. “There was no direct evidence pointing to our client, but that is it, he was stopped by a police officer, but from what he says he was not responsible… for the altercation with the police officer.”

Chainey also said that Camara was one of the people who called 911. 

“Maybe things happened too fast, maybe the investigation went too fast, we arrest someone too fast. There are a lot of questions that remain unanswered at this point,” Chainey said.

“What I can tell at this time is that we forgot about the presumption of innocence. Things that were said to the public were shocking, considering he was not the suspect and someone else may be arrested and the investigation is still going on. We need to learn from this situation.”

She said Camara is currently evaluating his options. 

In an interview with Haitian comedian Renzel Dashington on Instagram, Camara's niece Manty Keita claimed police hit Camara in the face and made his pregnant wife leave the house.

“They ransacked his house, they searched it from top to bottom. She is in an impossible state," alleged Keita, saying that Camara's wife went to her sister's house.

"He was wounded in the face when the police put him on the ground," Keita alleged.

A neighbour said in another post on Dashington's account that they allegedly went to Camara's house to remove garbage from the ransacked apartment.

INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION NEEDED

Plante said an independent investigation was needed that would not involve the Montreal police (SPVM) or the Crown prosecutor (DCPC), to shed light on what happened.

She said she spoke Thursday morning to Quebec’s Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault who she said was also concerned with making sure citizens feel safe and have trust in the police.

“At this point, I think it’s important to come up with a process rapidly that will give information about what happened," she said.

"Because right now what I’m feeling from everything I’m reading is that citizens are asking questions like why, how did it happen, how did we go from that situation ending up with a man spending six days in jail before police realized it was the wrong guy."

In a tweet Thursday, Guilbault wrote that the two levels of government are working together to decide how to proceed.

“The circumstances which led to the charges against Mr. Mamadi Fara Camara must be examined," she wrote. "We are working with the City of Montreal on the most optimal method while respecting the SPVM investigation, which is ongoing.” 

In a press conference Thursday afternoon, Montreal Police Chief Sylvain Caron said he's very open to the idea of an independent investigator to review all the steps police have taken since the alleged assault, and he stands by that previous work.

"We understand the situation is exceptional... the consequences are regrettable," Caron said.

"The rigour and tenacity of the investigators enabled them to to bring forward certain evidence in light of the testimonies," he said.

When new information arose, "we quickly did our homework to present these new elements to the [Crown prosecutors' office]," he said,

He added again later that the police work "was very well done."

SPVM leaders "welcome the involvement of an outside [investigator] to look at what was done since the event," he said.

WHAT REALLY  HAPPENED?

As to the police theory of what actually happened that night, and whether there's a dangerous suspect at large, Caron said the investigation is "still very active," and Camara is still considered "an important witness."

It's too soon to conclude more or to apologize to him, police leaders said at the press conference.

"We're ready to apologize to Monsieur Camara once we have all the facts," said deputy commander Simonetta Barth.

"Once those results come in and we're able to piece everythig together appropriately," she said, if he is definitively cleared, the SPVM will certainly make an apology and "it's the least that we can do."

Chainey, Camara's lawyer, said there was no clear evidence about her client's identification and the surveillance footage cast doubt on the original police reports about the assault.

Caron said the video images from the MTQ camera are under review, but the footage suggests there was an additional person on the scene at the time the assault happened.

"I want Montrealers to know that the event that took place on January 28 is exceptionally complex," said Caron. "Our investigators have worked tirelessly since the event to elucidate what happened."

Caron and Barth said there is "important evidence" being processed at the lab, without saying what it was.

"We have laboratory evidence coming back between maybe the next 24, 48 hours... so we'll have to wait," said Barth.

SEPARATE QUESTIONS ABOUT CROWN PROSECUTION

Montreal opposition leader Lionel Perez called for two investigations, to be done separately: one looking into the SPVM's handling of the case, and another to look into the prosecution. 

He called on the minister of justice to decide the best formula for investigating the prosecutors. He said he wants to see Quebec`s independent watchdog the BEI assigned to investigating the police. 

"I think that is the best organization that has the expertise, the knowledge and the structure, as well as the independence to act," he said. 

Perez also said he's troubled but what he called "a complete lack of transparency" at the SPVM and by Caron.

"We think that the SPVM and Mr. Caron owes Mr. Camara an apology regardless of any potential lawsuit. That is the right and humane thing to do," he said.

"When you have that situation, it's imperative that the chief of police come out and face the music, be transparent and demonstrate accountability," he said.

"Mr. Caron has to explain himself. He has to explain why there's a complete lack of transparency, otherwise the question has to be asked, is Mr. Caron still the person for the job?"

The Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) echoed Perez's call for an investigation.

"The management by the SPVM of this incident, which practically destroyed the reputation of an innocent person and deeply affected his family, raises serious questions that will have to be subject to an independent investigation," said CRARR director Fo Niemi in a news release.

Among the many questions Plante would like to see answered, she said, is whether or not Camara’s arrest was a result of racial profiling because he is Black.

MAYOR WANTS POLICE BODY CAMERAS 'AS FAST AS POSSIBLE'

A debate of the last few years has been renewed, with people -- including the mayor -- calling for Montreal police officers to wear body cameras while on duty, recording their moves.

Perez said his party, Ensemble Montreal, has been pushing Plante's Projet Montreal administration to equip SPVM officers with body cams, "because it works," Perez told CTV News.

"It ensures accountability," he said. "It ensures an objective view of what transpires in these incidences, and it protects not only these potential victims but also the officers, because a lot of times there are fake allegations made against them and this will protect everyone."

On Thursday Plante said the city is ready to demand that police wear the cameras as soon as possible.

“We’re working with the public security minister in terms of what will be the different parameters, but yes, we are ready,” she said.

“We want that to go as fast as possible. Right now we are not participating in that [pilot] project but we are raising our hands and saying we want to have it, we’re ready.”

Ensemble Montreal says body cams would cost around $17 million over three years. Perez said the party would like to know why the SPVM is not carving out a piece of its reported $340 million budget for the tool.

When asked about body cams Thursday, Chief Caron said one obstacle is the expense.

The chief also denied, when asked, that Camara's arrest was a result of racial profiling.

Last Thursday, he said, "we were not in a situation of profiling. We were in a situation of a criminal investigation."

OPPOSITION PARTIES IN QUEBEC ECHO CAMERA CALLS

Tracy Wing, whose son Riley Fairholm was shot and killed by police in 2018, delivered a petition to Quebec Liberal Party MNA Gregory Kelley proposing mandatory body cams across the province.

"I tabled the petition saying something should be done to create greater tranparency between police and the citizens of Quebec," said Kelley.

Wing said one minute of video footage would have given her a view of her son's last moments, and a chance at closure.

"If we had cameras it would just keep people accountable," she said.

"It happened all in 61 seconds from the minute they see him to the minute they shoot him. We're almost three years in and I still don't have an autopsy. I have very vague information. I think if there were body cameras, they wouldn't be able to put it off this long."

Though there was talk of a pilot project, and reports that Quebec provincial police, the Surete du Quebec, had purchased cameras, officers have remained without them.

"We're still waiting. There's really been no action on this since I tabled my petition, despite what's gone on in the world," said Kelley, referencing the Black Lives Matter movement following the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, and the Viens Commission on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Quebec, which recommended body cams be mandatory.

Parti Quebecois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon said Thursday that mandating body cams was part of his leadership campaign.

"One of the components was to have cameras on every policeman, so that we get the story straight and quick, and I think that should be seriously considered," he said adding his own support for an independent inquiry into the Camara incident.

"Citizens want it, different advocacy groups want it, (and) it just seems like the government's holding it up," said Kelley.

-With files from CTV's Selena Ross

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