Coroner's report: mistakes all around on Fredy Villanueva death
Published Tuesday, December 17, 2013 9:42AM EST Last Updated Tuesday, December 17, 2013 8:47PM EST
The coroner's inquest into the death of Fredy Villanueva finds that many of the people involved made mistakes, some due to lack of training, and that investigators looking into the death took steps that made it more difficult to determine what truly happened.
Fredy Villanueva, 18, was shot and killed on Aug. 9, 2008 by Const. Jean-Loup Lapointe after he was found playing an illegal game of dice with his brother and three friends in Henri-Bourassa Park in Montreal North.
The death led to a riot the next day, investigations of racial profiling by police, and court battles involving the Villanueva family and Montreal police that delayed an inquiry for years.
The incident began when Const. Lapointe and his partner, Const. Stephanie Pilotte, spotted the group of young men gambling in the park.
One of those men was Fredy's older brother Dany Villanueva, a criminal with a history of associating with gangs whose bail conditions prevented him from being in the park.
Lapointe moved to arrest Dany Villanueva, who fought back and resisted arrest. Pilotte moved to Lapointe's assistance, then Fredy Villanueva and his friends jumped on the officers.
Fearing that one of the youths was trying to take his gun, Lapointe drew his firearm and fired four times, hitting Fredy Villanueva twice, while Jeffrey Sagor Metellus and Denis Meas were each shot once.
Fredy Villanueva died of his injuries in hospital two and a half hours later
Series of human errors
Coroner André Perrault said it was during the initial meeting when the first of a series of human errors occurred: instead of agreeing to a simple and legal request to present identification to police officers, Dany Villanueva refused and began to scream and complain.
According to the report "even if Dany VIllanueva believed he had a good reason to contest the infraction he was being accused of, it served no purpose to scream, to get agitated, and to refuse to establish his identity."
The report says Lapointe's decision to touch Dany in an attempt to calm him down led to an escalation, a justifiable one on the part of police.
"[Dany] had decided to not co-operate, to resist. He was seeking a confrontation," states the report. "It was reckless on his part. He should have known that his actions were likely to encourage his brother and his friends to get involved."
The report reminds readers that the doctrine of reasonable force does not mean that police have to give their opponents an equal chance to resist.
It also states that the officers involved had every reason to fear for their lives when Fredy Villanueva put Lapointe in a headlock.
The coroner also concludes that Lapointe was not interested in getting into a fight or hurting anyone, as demonstrated by his initial attempt to restrain Dany Villanueva with his bare hands.
However he criticized the weapon, saying that there was no need to fire four bullets, and that it will never be known if the first bullet fired killed Fredy Villanueva, or if it was the last.
The second and third bullets that Lapointe fired, which struck Metullus and Meas, were "superfluous" and unnecessary, according to Perreault's report.
The report says Pilotte's decision not to call for backup and to help Lapointe restrain Dany Villanueva was correct: events unrolled so fast that no assistance could have arrived in time, and if Lapointe had been hurt in his struggle with Villanueva, she would have been criticized for not helping.
The coroner notes that after the shooting, police officers arriving at the scene took multiple steps that served to antagonize the growing crowd of witnesses and onlookers.
In one case an officer walked up to a group and yelled at them to leave, using foul language in every sentence.
The report says the officer in question was never identified, but that this type of behaviour in crowd control had every possibility of sparking more dangerous incidents, and contributed to the feeling of being abused felt by residents of Montreal North. One day after Villanueva's death Montreal North erupted into a riot.
As has been noted before, constables Lapointe and Pilotte were both placed in the back of a car for 20 minutes before being taken to hospital and left together in the same room before being questioned by their union representative.
At that time Pilotte wrote some quick notes about what happened, and later the pair were brought to Station 39, where they met at length again with a member of the union.
The coroner's report says both Montreal police and officers from the Surete du Quebec tasked with investigating the shooting seemed to go out of their way to avoid talking to Pilotte or Lapointe.
It was a week later when Lapointe and Pilotte were finally asked to provide written testimony about what occurred, something Pilotte did without referring to her notes from the night of the shooting.
This is contrary to provincial guidelines, which state that all witnesses, including police officers, should be kept apart before until being questioned by investigators.
All the non-police witnesses were in fact kept separate from each other being before questioned.
Fredy did not deserve to die
The report says it will never be clear if Fredy was trying to disarm Lapointe or not, but that he did not deserve to die for his actions.
"He had the bad reflex or the bad judgment to attempt to stop an altercation by getting in the middle," wrote Judge Perreault. "I doubt if Fredy Villanueva even thought about the risk of his actions."
However the report states clearly that Const. Lapointe was not a trigger-happy police officer eager to kill someone.
"Fredy Villanueva was not the victim of a killer cop, but his memory shouldn't be associated with the image of a thug falling victim to police bullets while trying to disarm a police officer."
The coroner's report is packed with advice for police officers, police forces, and for the general public.
Those recommendations include:
- the public security ministry create new guidelines on the appropriate use of physical contact by police officers and how it can escalate to the appropriate use of force
- police officers be trained in the appropriate use of force,
- police officers be trained in dealing with different ethnic groups,
- police forces re-examine their firearms, and select weapons that are not semi-automatic or automatic,
- equipping police cars with GPS units,
- equipping officers with radios that can be used without hands,
- the city of Montreal come up with a plan to tackle poverty and inequality in Montreal North,
- the police academy train officers in dealing with situations where a partner is attacked,
- that officers be trained in the distinctions between social profiling, racial profiling, and criminal profiling,
- the Ministry of Education teach high school students how to interact with police officers, how to contest a fine or infraction, and the consequences of refusing to show ID.