Six years after Montreal police fatally shot an unarmed teenager during an altercation in a city park, the disciplinary case against eight officers alleged to have botched the investigation has been quietly closed.
On Oct. 28, Quebec’s Commissaire à la déontologie policière dropped its case against six members of the Montreal police service and two officers from the Sûreté du Québec who had been accused of mishandling witnesses after the shooting.
The shooting of Fredy Villanueva by police opened an ugly wound, sparking riots, exposing the practice of racial profiling and prompting an exhaustive coroner’s inquiry that issued its final report late last year. Jean-Loup Lapointe was never charged or disciplined for pulling the trigger and has since joined the SWAT team. His partner Stéphanie Pilotte was lauded for keeping a level head that night. But the fallout laid bare another urgent issue that persists in Quebec to this day: the problems inherent in police investigating police.
Then as now, one force is called to investigate another if police shoot someone or a suspect is injured in custody. This is an outdated and discredited way of proceeding, given the opportunity for bias and favouritism, real or perceived.
Indeed, the handling of the Villanueva investigation was one reason why Quebec passed a law in 2013 creating the Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes. Now, the fact that the disciplinary process for the investigators has been abruptly abandoned serves as a reminder that the Bureau, a civilian body that would investigate police shootings, among other things, has yet to start operating.
After reviewing the file, the commissaire concluded “it would be impossible to meet the burden of proof, that is to produce clear and convincing evidence” to support the accusations against the investigators. Few details justify this decision, and there is no discussion of the facts — or lack thereof — at play. Just case closed.
Despite the scant explanation, we do know enough about police actions the night of the shooting from Coroner André Perreault’s report to be concerned. Perreault reserved his harshest criticism for the officers whose failure to follow protocol resulted in a bungled probe. He noted that examining how police conducted themselves was not even part of his mandate, but that the lapses were so flagrant they could not be ignored. In fact, he characterized the police work as having been so shoddy it hampered his quest to get to the truth.
Perreault’s report cited 15 examples of lapses, all of violations of Police Work 101. Among them: the two officers involved in the shooting were not isolated from each other; their guns were not recovered according to the rules of evidence; their union reps were able to talk to them the same night but the investigating officers from the SQ didn’t speak to them for weeks. This list goes on.
The Villanueva affair was one in a series of high-profile incidents that have eroded public confidence. We will never know now whether the mistakes in the Villanueva case were due to a lack of training in proper policy or a deliberate attempt to shield fellow officers. We can only wonder whether the inadequacy of the initial investigation ultimately doomed the disciplinary process. But in the absence of the long-overdue appointment of an independent police watchdog, we are left to ask: Who is policing the police?