Officer who shot Villanueva becomes member of SWAT team

MONTREAL — The Montreal police officer who took just 57 seconds to get out of his cruiser, wrestle a young man to the ground and fire his gun four times — killing an unarmed teen and injuring two others — became a SWAT team member in the midst of a coroner’s inquest into the fatal shooting.

Lawyers involved in the inquest into the shooting death of Fredy Villanueva, which is set to resume Wednesday, say the move shows a lack of respect for the work of coroner André Perreault, whose inquest has boiled down to one question: On the night of Aug. 9, 2008, was Constable Jean-Loup Lapointe justified in fearing that the youths he stopped to question in a Montreal North park would disarm him?

“This squad is called on more often to use their guns because they’re involved in high-risk interventions,” said Alain Arsenault, whose client was injured by one of Lapointe’s bullets. “I think it was a bad decision on the part of police force management (to give Lapointe the job).”

Montreal police spokesman Ian Lafrenière said that Lapointe applied for the highly sought-after job, and got it after undergoing rigorous tests. It was not a promotion, nor does it come with more pay, he said.

“He has never been found guilty of anything, so it would be hard for us to keep him in an office or something like that,” he said. “And we’re not going to say don’t take that officer on the SWAT team because some people might think it doesn’t look good.”

SWAT, or technical response officers, intervene in special police operations such as hostage-takings, bomb defusings or disappearances under water, which require them to have diving skills. Montreal’s SWAT team was present during the student demonstrations last year.

Lawyers for the victims argued at the inquest, which last heard from witnesses in November 2010, that safety mechanisms on police officers’ holsters would have prevented anyone from grabbing Lapointe’s gun, and that the officer was simply trigger happy and out to get the Montreal North youths.

Lapointe’s partner, Stéphanie Pilotte, testified that she never pulled her gun during the mêlée because she wasn’t afraid.

The inquest, called after riots and a public outcry over the shooting, shed light on the minute detail of what transpired before, during and after the 57 seconds it took for Lapointe and Pilotte to get out of their police cruiser and wrestle Dany Villanueva to the ground, and for Lapointe to fire his gun, killing Dany’s brother, Fredy Villanueva, 18, and injuring two others.

The officers had pulled into a parking lot beside Henri-Bourassa Park to question the group of five young men playing dice. When Dany refused to identify himself, things deteriorated quickly. As Lapointe struggled to handcuff him, Fredy was telling Lapointe to let his brother go and was hit by three bullets. Two others at the scene, Denis Méas and Jeffrey Sagor-Metéllus, were injured.

The police force went to Quebec Superior Court to try to keep evidence about the holster from being examined, claiming it would put all officers at risk if the public were to learn how to disarm them. But Superior Court Justice Danielle Grenier ruled in April against the force, saying that delaying the coroner’s report on an inquest that ended almost three years ago discredits the administration of justice.

Two weapons experts from the Montreal police force are scheduled to testify Wednesday and Friday.

Alexandre Popovic, a non-lawyer representing the Coalition Against Repression and Police Abuse, said Lapointe should not be on a SWAT team, given his reputation.

“We’re talking about a police officer who fired on three youths who had no weapons in their hands, a police officer who had a bad reputation among many youths in Montreal North, according to testimony heard during the inquest,” he said. “He’s a police officer who even had two pairs of handcuffs with him when he was patrolling Montreal North’s streets, according to Lapointe’s own testimony.”

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