Quebec Is Also Wrestling with Police Violence and Impunity

« Firing at a criminal who is himself firing at the police or another person is one thing. Firing a gun at a person who is obviously mentally unstable is something else. »

By Simon Van Vliet

October 27, 2014, 12:58pm

Hood of a police vehicle in Montreal. Photo via the author.
Last week, as tension mounted in Ferguson, Missouri over a recently leaked autopsy that supported the police account of the shooting of Michael Brown, Montreal was also coming to grips with issues of police violence and impunity as developments in two recent police-related deaths in Quebec thrust the issue back into the spotlight.

The Justice for Victims of Police Killings Coalition held its fifth Annual October 22 Commemorative Gathering & Vigil. The Coalition Against Repression and Police Abuse—created in the wake of the death of 18-year old Fredy Villanueva in 2008—has documented hundreds of people killed in police-related incidents in Canada since 1987. Two of the most recent additions are Alain Magloire and Guy Blouin, whose cases sparked controversy for the questionable handling by police.

On October 16, Radio-Canada released video footage obtained from surveillance cameras showing the last minutes of Alain Magloire’s life. Magloire was in the throes of a mental health crisis when he was shot to death by a Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) officer on the morning of February 3, 2014.

The last segment of the footage shows an erratic Magloire surrounded by at least four SPVM officers—three of which are holding him at gunpoint—on a street in downtown Montreal, where he was finally shot down.

Police had been called to the scene because Magloire was being aggressive and was armed with a hammer. Radio-Canada also released a recording of police radio communications, where you can hear the cops calling for a Taser.

Asked if the officers involved had tried to call one of the units that specialize in mental health interventions in Montreal such as Urgence Psychosociale-Justice (UPS-J), SPVM communications officer Mélanie Lajoie said she couldn’t comment on specifics of the case as a coroner’s public investigation has been ordered.

To shoot or not to shoot?

The tragic shooting is not the first time the Quebec’s coroner’s office has ordered a public investigation into the police-related deaths of people with mental health issues, the past results of which have indicated a serious need for better handling of similar situations. In a December 4, 2012 report about the death of Mario Hamel and Patrick Limoges, coroner Jean Brochu noted: « Several events in recent years indicate that a major effort is needed to avoid a situation like that of June 7, 2011 deteriorating to the point where there is no alternative left but to use a firearm against a person who is visibly in an unstable mental state. »

The coroner recommended that more mobile specialized intervention teams—like UPS-J which is trained to intervene in emergency mental health crisis situations—be deployed to support police officers in dealing with homeless people and people with mental health issues or drug addiction.

« Firing at a criminal who is himself firing at the police or another person is one thing. Firing a gun at a person who is obviously mentally unstable is something else, » the coroner states in that report, which recommends, amongst other things, that more officers and patrol cars be equipped with non-lethal weapons such as Tasers.

Even so, the non-lethal nature of Taser guns—or similar stun guns—remains debatable. Truth not Tasers has listed over 850 cases of Taser-related deaths in North America, a list which « does not include persons who also were shot; or where a gun was mistaken for a Taser; or where a shock weapon was used by a criminal during commission of a lethal crime. »

The 2012 coroner’s report also pointed to internal police firearm qualification documents that show that Montreal police officers had the worst results in firearm aptitude, despite the fact they’re involved in the greatest number of shootings. According to the report, « The [SPVM firearm] certification rate has dropped from about 98 percent in the early 2000s to 43 percent and 56 percent in the last two years of the decade… In addition, the absenteeism rate for target training sessions…is around 20 percent. And since lack of shooting qualification doesn’t seem to produce any effect internally, some officers…may be tempted to take things lightly. »

For the public, the consequences of this lack of small firearms qualification can be fatal, as in the case of Hamel and Limoges, where the latter was hit and killed by a stray bullet that had missed Hamel and ricocheted against a wall. The cop who killed Magloire shot no less than four bullets. Any one of those could have missed and hit the officer who at the time was on the ground dangerously positioned at Magloire’s feet—or even ricocheted against the wall behind Magloire, possibly hitting a passer by.

The footage from the events that cost Magloire his life further raises serious questions about tactical aspects of the operation. Police analyst and former cop, Stéphane Berthomet, says there was no immediate threat to the officers when backup arrived on the scene: « Magloire was backing away from the officers, he was going back towards the sidewalk. »

« There were two bad decisions made in a two-second timeframe, » he says. First, the driver of a police car decided to run strait into Magloire. Second, an officer ran towards Magloire and tried to grab him off the hood of the moving car, making himself vulnerable and isolated.

According to Berthomet, « those were two bad operational decisions. » When the officer fell to the ground—at that point within reach of Magloire’s hammer—one of his colleagues decided to fire his gun. It could reasonably be argued that the officer shot Magloire to protect his colleague, but the decision of the driver, which created the whole situation, remains questionable. « I don’t understand why he had to use his car under those circumstances. »

But car-related incidents involving police are all too common: no less than 90 events have been investigated since 1999 across Quebec where people have been killed or seriously injured following a police car chase, according to official Public Safety Ministry statistics.

The latest case was that of Guy Blouin, a cyclist who died after being hit by a police cruiser in Quebec city last month.

Guy Blouin’s death: an « accident »

Speaking on Blouin’s death, SPVQ police chief Michel Desgagné told Le Devoir, « It’s an accident, » even though the case is still under an independent investigation by the Quebec provincial police, Sûreté du Québec (SQ). A few days later, a journalist from a major daily newspaper confirmed the « accident » might have been due to a defective ABS breaking system on the police cruiser—and then broke the story that the officer who had been driving the car has been promoted to investigator status.

« We didn’t make that information public. We know nothing, » SPVQ communications officer François Moisan told VICE about the SQ investigation.

He did confirm that some journalists know the identity of the officers involved in Blouin’s death, although he says that the SPVQ has never « disclosed nor confirmed » the information. Moisan could only confirm that « one of the officers involved had been temporarily assigned to Investigations. »

SQ spokesperson, Sergeant Ann Mathieu, said she would neither confirm nor deny information published by the press about the investigation into Blouin’s Death. Such a non-denial statement—seemingly inspired by Cold War CIA rhetoric—will do little to reassure the people who are seeking answers as to how and why Guy Blouin died.

This elusive attitude is something families, friends, and allies of the Justice for Victims of Police Killings Coalition know all too well.

« It’s the same bullshit once again, » Josiane Millette told VICE about the public relations campaign surrounding Blouin’s death.

She remembers how police and the media had depicted her boyfriend, Jean-François Nadreau—who was shot to death on February 16, 2012 by SPVM officers—as a mad man, to justify the killing. « They [manipulate] facts against the victim so that people keep trusting the police, » Millette said.

According to their website, the Annual Commemorative Gathering & Vigil held on October 22 is meant « to remember those who have lost their lives at the hands of the police » and to show support for the families « who face an uphill battle in uncovering the truth and obtaining justice for their loved ones. » Some of those families have been fighting this fight for decades, they still wonder what happened, and why the officers responsible for their loss were not held accountable.

This year’s vigil was held in conjunction with the 19th edition of the October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation National Day of Protest which rallied people from across the US to « challenge the on-going [police] violence against the people » and to « express our collective outrage, creativity, and resistance in response to the crimes of this system. » Whether anyone will listen—in Missouri or Montreal—remains to be seen.