A demonstration in Quebec, protesting the death of Guy Blouin. Photo via JuliaBPage on Twitter.
A 48-year-old man named Guy Blouin was killed last week on September 3 after a collision with a Quebec City police cruiser. His death has highlighted the need for a transparent and independent investigation process into police-related deaths.
Witnesses say that the police car backed up and deliberately hit the cyclist at high speed, then the officers arrested the wounded man, put his bike in their trunk, and fled from the scene. Ann Mathieu, a spokesperson for Sûreté du Québec (SQ), Quebec's provincial police, could not corroborate that account of the incident, while adding that their internal investigation might reveal another side of the story.
While there has not been an official police account of the story, the witnesses' version of the incident sparked protests around the Saint-Roch Church square, underlining existing tensions between the police and the community. It's also reopened a discussion about the growing disconnect between cops and the public, and how to handle police officers who kill or injure the very people they have vowed to serve and protect.
Why are police still policing police?
The Minister of Public Safety, Lise Thériault, asked the SQ to lead the investigation into the death of Guy Blouin. Blouin's death was confirmed on Thursday, Sept 4, two days after it was announced that another investigation—also led by SQ—would not result in any criminal charges being laid against the Montreal police officer involved in the shooting of Alain Magloire, who was killed on Feb 3.
Magloire was the fourth man with mental health problems to be shot to death by Service de police de la Ville de Montreal (SPVM) officers since 2011.
Over the past 15 years, there have been on average 30 people a year who died or were seriously injured in police operations in Quebec. Police-led investigations have resulted in accusations against police officers in less than one percent of cases.
A bill creating an independent bureau of investigations was adopted last year, but the new unit will not be operational before 2015. Until then, inquiries will remain under the responsibility of either the SPVM, the Service de police de la Ville de Québec (SPVQ), or the SQ. Ignoring widespread criticism, the government has refused to establish an independent review process.
"We've seen all sorts of evidence that these [police-led] investigations are not trustworthy," Sébastien Harvey from the Québec City section of Ligue des droits et libertés told VICE. "We're disappointed that the government did not accelerate the implementation of the bureau." Though his group has criticized the proposed bureau—which is inspired by the Ontario Special Investigation Unit—Harvey says even such an imperfect alternative would be better than the existing process.
Independent investigation or public relations operation?
As for the tragic case of cyclist Guy Blouin, SQ spokesperson Ann Mathieu questioned civilian accounts of the incident and insisted that the investigation might reveal "other elements."
Because the crime scene had been altered, SQ investigators had to construct a forensic recreation of the events. They brought in a helicopter, a crash-test dummy (dressed in the victim's own clothes), the police cruiser, and Blouin's bicycle.
The same day, SPVQ officials told the media that the officers involved had gone on medical leave, and a story came out stating that both policemen had "flawless disciplinary records."
"It's like there is an attempt to frame things in a certain way," former French police officer and police and judicial affairs analyst Stéphane Berthomet said. The expert noted that the only information SQ officials made public at the beginning of the investigation were facts that tended to exonerate the officers.
Neither SQ nor SPVQ representatives made any public comments after that.
In an email to VICE, SPVQ communications director François Moisan said that the identity of the officers involved have not been made public. When asked how a journalist was able to discover their "flawless" service records, Moisan said the journalist must have had access to it through their own "contacts."
The SQ public affairs spokesperson, Richard Gagné, said he could not give out any more information before the investigation is completed and Clément Falardeau, public relations officer at the Ministry of Public Safety, refused to comment on the independent SQ investigation.
"The ministry is hiding behind the independence of the police corps," Berthomet said. "It's an easy excuse to stay out of it."
In his 2013 book, Enquête sur la Police, Berthomet documented several cases of independent inquiries that were manipulated to exonerate the officers involved.
"This is not Ferguson"
Blouin's death sparked protests around the Saint-Roch Church Square, where vigils were held last Thursday and Friday. Some residents expressed grief for Blouin's death, while others displayed anger and hostility towards the police, holding sings that read: "The police are stealing lives"—an ironic reference to ongoing protests by police unions and other municipal employees against cutbacks in their pension plans, where police officers can be seen wearing stickers reading: "We haven't stolen anything."
In a late-night demonstration held on Sept 5, a small group of protesters marched from the church square to a local police station before blocking traffic with a sit-in on Charest Boulevard, where nine people were eventually arrested and charged with unrest under a municipal bylaw.
The previous day, the Quebec Police Brotherhood president, Bernard Lerhe, had stated that civil society groups and opinion leaders would only exacerbate tensions by protesting police impunity.
Quebec City mayor, Régis Labeaume, asked the public to trust the SQ investigation and accused anti-police activists of trying to "recuperate" Blouin's death. In his blunt populist style, he also declared: "We're not in Ferguson here."
Indeed, Blouin's tragic death has nothing in common with the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The same cannot be said, however, of the killing of Freddy Villanueva, an unarmed 18-year-old who was shot to death by SPVM officer Jean-Loup Lapointe on Aug 9, 2008 in Montréal Nord.
The investigation into this tragic event—also conducted by SQ—led to no charges against Officer Lapointe. After his medical leave, Lapointe went back to active service and eventually joined the Montreal SWAT team.
The coroner's public inquiry ordered in December 2008 stated in its report—released in December 2013—that flaws in current police investigation processes had hindered the coroner's work in finding out the truth about the causes and circumstances surrounding the death of Fredy Villanueva.
The lack of accountability when it comes to police killings has been a problem for decades in Canada.
Rachel Sauvé, organizer with the Coalition Justice for Levi—which recently won a Supreme Court case against the Ontario Provincial Police—said that the only way to end police impunity is to shift away from, and recognize: "A systemic pro-police bias embedded in and across our justice system which makes it impossible for that system itself to hold these bodies to account."