Canada's second-largest police force has become yet another squad embroiled in allegations of sexual misconduct and alleged criminality, as four officers find themselves on the opposite side of the law.
Last week, the Montreal Police Services (SPVM) arrested four of its own, the latest bit of turmoil to hit the controversy-stricken force.
The force has faced a public relations crisis in recent years, and the most recent round of revelations aren't helping.
In 2012, the SPVM was accused of being overzealous in its handling of student protests that had cropped up in response to a government tuition hike — thousands were arrested, and dozens were injured in crowd control operations. In 2014, two officers were caught inside their cruisers with "tipsy ladies" sitting on their lap, and were finally suspended this year. And this week, La Presse reported the trial of two major cocaine importers may have been derailed by the fact that three officers involved in the investigation had been sanctioned for their various ties to organized crime. These stories just stack on top of accusations of racial profiling that have also plagued the force. Plus, the man in charge of internal affairs is himself the target of a criminal investigation.
The SPVM, of course, isn't the only Canadian force under fire. Three Toronto cops are accused of a violent sexual assault stemming from a 2015 incident, while police forces all across Ontario are under fire for stopping people on the street and demanding identification — a practice known as 'carding' — which has disproportionately affected non-white individuals.
But the SPVM has had a particularly rough few years, and the most recent arrests are just another bad news story for the force.
Two of the men charged in this latest case, Faycal Djelidi and David Chartrand, are accused of perjury and attempting to obstruct justice. Djelidi, a 16-year force veteran, is also accused of breach of trust and of a prostitution-related charge. The two had been working as investigators specialized in street gangs, sex work, and drugs, on what the Montreal police unironically calls the "Morality Squad."
Though no information has been released on the two other officers, who have yet to be charged, SPVM director Philippe Pichet explained in a press conference that the men had first raised suspicions last winter when they failed to properly document meetings with informants.
Pichet said the force's internal affairs department subsequently launched a seven month criminal investigation during which the officers were followed and wiretapped. Reports claim that during this period, Djelidi was caught frequenting massage parlors and engaging in sexual activity with sex workers.
According to La Presse, the final blow to Djelidi and Chartrand's case came at the hands of an undercover RCMP agent, who posed as an informant pretending he could help the officers seize 10 kilos of cocaine. Without sufficient information to order the necessary search warrant, the officers allegedly falsified their documents to expedite the process.
"We all feel involved when one of ours crosses that line. The whole police community is involved," said Pichet. "The vast majority of police officers and SPVM staff do their work ethically, professionally and with integrity, respecting the organisation's values."
But for ex-police officer and security consultant Stéphane Berthomet, this latest controversy is likely only scratching the surface of the SPVM's deeper-rooted problems. "We've seen it before, in other files, that the real issues are often concealed behind a commotion," he told VICE News.
'The real issues are often concealed behind a commotion.'
The arrests come amid a climate of growing tension within the force. Since 2014, many of the province's police officers have shunned their official uniform in favor of brightly-colored camouflage pants and red baseball caps, a form of silent (and sometimes not-so-quiet) protest against budget cuts and pension reform.
Last year, SPVM chief Marc Parent stepped down after a tumultuous five year tenure, a departure plagued by rumors of administrative tensions. Then, in early June, SPVM communications director Ian Lafrenière was stripped of his role in a move that hinted at continued internal dissent. Pichet justified the decision as a means to adapt to the changing journalistic landscape and said he wanted the position held by a civilian "communications expert" rather than by a police officer. He then promptly replaced Lafrenière by another police officer, Marie-Claude Dandenault.
Days after Lafrenière's "reshuffling," the Montreal Police Brotherhood (the union) issued a memo telling its members the SPVM was conducting what journalists were calling a "witch hunt" and sharing concern that Mayor Denis Coderre had become overly and increasingly involved in the force's business.
The note also instructed staff to alert the union if they were contacted by the internal investigative team and told officers to refuse to take polygraph tests, which is apparently was happening.
Berthomet said he's not surprised the force would instruct its officers not to liaise with reporters. "In a general sense, a police force where we allow investigators or officers to have contact with journalists just doesn't exist," he said. "What matters is the way we manage [leaks]."
"I know this doesn't sit well with journalists, and it's in the public interest to have this info, but from a police corps standpoint, this is nothing new."
Thickening the whole plot is the fact that the very person in charge of managing these messy internal affairs, Costa Labos, is himself being investigated by the provincial police for potentially lying to a judge.
"It's obvious that with an investigation of this nature weighing on him, [Labos] does not have the required credibility nor the legitimacy to ensure to supervise the probity of our members," said union president Yves Francoeur in a press release requesting Labos' removal. "The SPVM's disciplinary process already suffers from serious credibility issues and ignores the natural rules of justice," the document states.
What the force needs, according to Berthomet, is to set higher standards and issue more stringent punishment to officers who stray from the code of conduct.
"A police force that's not vigilant with its staff's ethics, that allows certain errors and that's quite light-handed with its sanctions runs the risk that its officers will start to step out of line," he said, explaining the four officers involved in these recent arrests should perhaps have been more severely reprimanded when their questionable behavior was initially reported seven months ago.
"To me this is a game that's being played on a variety of levels, which has been going on for years between the mayor, the SPVM's leadership, the union and certain police officers," said Berthomet. "I get the impression there are accounts being settled, but it's more complicated than what's being said in the news.
"This unfortunately enhances citizens' perception that we have this closed off, insular police force that settles accounts between themselves."
The Police Brotherhood told VICE News they had no comment on these matters, while the SPVM declined an interview request.
Follow Brigitte Noel on Twitter: @Brige_Noel