Special Report: Who Polices the Police?
Published Monday, October 26, 2009 10:49AM EDT Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 12:06AM EDT
Quebec's system of cops investigating each other must be scrapped because officers usually can't be objective, critics said as a CTV investigation reveals that such probes rarely lead to criminal charges.
Under Quebec law, an outside police force is called in whenever officers are involved in shootings or other incidents that affect civilians. The ministerial policy has been in place since the 1990's.
But a prominent anti-racism group and a former head of the province's police ethics commission both say that data obtained by CTV News shows that the system doesn't work.
Through Access to Information, CTV obtained the results of six years of investigations -- 97 cases where civilians were injured or killed in police shootings, chases and arrests that involved a confrontation.
Only once did the outside police force recommend criminal charges.
The sole case brought to trial resulted in an acquittal and a 60-day suspension for SQ officer Hugo Potvin, whose blocking maneuver with his cruiser led to the death of a young ATV driver northeast of Montreal in 2003.
But outside forces closed the book on 96 other cases, including some of the highest-profile police-related deaths in recent years. Here's a summary:
Jan 2003 - May 2008
Paul Monty, who headed up Quebec's Police Ethics Commission from 1999 to 2005, said he was so troubled by CTV's findings that he had to speak out.
"I was shocked," he said in a recent interview from in Ste-Foy.
"We have one of the best, if not the best police officers in the world but . . . if the population will be shocked, the support can change and it can be the beginning of more difficult tasks for the police department."
Though he would not give specific examples, Monty said that some of the cases examined by CTV warranted criminal charges.
"I remember some cases that could be sent to the Crown -- it was negligence, criminal negligence of police officers."
Many of the cases dismissed by police are explosive:
- The August, 2008 shooting death of 18-year-old Fredy Villanueva by Montreal police officer Jean-Loup Lapointe that triggered riots, a lawsuit and a coroner's inquest that got underway Monday at the Montreal courthouse.
- Quillem Registre, 38, who died during an October 2007 arrest after Montreal police tasered him six times in less than 60 seconds. Police say Registre was high and hysterical at the time. A coroner later said the stun gun might have contributed to his death.
- Mohamed Benis, 25, shot and killed by Montreal police in December 2005 as he happened across a drug operation in Cote-des-neiges. Police claim Benis tried to attack an officer with a knife but his family disputes the claim.
- And Michel Berniquez, who died after being subdued by six officers in Montreal North in 2003.
Outside police forces reached the same conclusion in all four deaths -- case closed, no charges.
Quebec's Public Security department is in charge of the outside investigations, all of which are handled by the Surete du Quebec, Montreal police or investigators with the Quebec City police.
Public security says the system works.
"The police forces that conduct these investigations possess the necessary expertise and experience to manage these cases," department spokesman Martin Vaillancourt said in an emailed response.
Vaillancourt says there are multiple checks and balances on police conduct including:
- The Police Ethics Commission, which investigates citizen complaints against police and can suspend officers:
- The coroner, who can hold an inquest into police actions:
- The Public Security department, which can review operational and administrative practices:
- And the police forces, which are bound by internal discipline rules.
Call for change
Ontario is the only province where police forces are overseen by civilian agency - the Special Investigations Unit.
People in British Columbia are debating the idea of more civilian involvement in the wake of the taser death of Robert Dziekanski, who died at Vancouver Airport in 2007 after he was hit with a stun gun during an altercation with four Mounties.
Civilian competence questioned
The Quebec ombudsman, Raymonde Saint-Germain, will soon table a report into Quebec's system of police investigating police.
She has previously said the system has problems, but a source in Quebec law enforcement questions the idea of bringing civilians into the process.
He says that complex investigative techniques such as ballistics, DNA and accident reconstruction are best left to the experts.
"This is not something where you could take a guy who's a security guard and put him in there," said the source.
"How do you keep (civilians) up to date?"
Fo Niemi of the human-rights group CRARR says it's ridiculous for police to circle their wagons amidst all of the criticism.
"Anybody can be trained, even if they're not a police officer," says Niemi.
"Even doctors can be very effective investigators, just like coroners don't have to be police officers to determine the cause of death in criminal circumstances.
Monty has another solution - he says the police ethics commission should be given expanded powers to investigate allegations of police wrongdoing. He says the civilian-led agency is familiar with the files and represents a lower-cost option than an all-new civilian agency.
The ethics commission can currently recommend disciplinary, but not criminal, sanctions against police officers.
Oversight of Quebec police will be under more scrutiny over the next several weeks.
A coroner's inquest into the Villanueva's death is now underway at the Montreal courthouse. The Crown's decision not to press charges in the Villanueva case followed a Surete du Quebec report that the Montreal police officer was engaged in justifiable defence.