After discovering that a Quebec provincial police officer would be getting off scot free after killing a five-year-old in a fatal car crash, the reaction from both the child's family and the Canadian public was clear: shock and disbelief. But the growing distrust between Quebeckers and law enforcement comes amid several other questionable traffic-related verdicts that suggest that police get different treatment than civilians when it comes to breaking traffic laws.
The question on many people's minds was: How could a cop get away with fatally injuring a child while 26-year-old Emma Czornobaj was recently convicted of criminal negligence and dangerous driving after stopping her car on a highway to rescue a family of ducks in 2010 led to an accident that killed a 50-year-old man and his 16-year-old daughter? In that case, the Crown prosecutor asked for a nine-month prison term.
On top of that, a few days before Czornobaj's initial court hearing, two Quebec City police officers were involved in the suspicious death of cyclist Guy Blouin, who died after being run into by a police cruiser on September 4. He was allegedly riding his bike the wrong way down a one-way street when the police car backed over him at high speed. Given the information that has been made public about the SQ's independent investigation, it is likely no criminal prosecution will come from it.
Three days after Blouin's death, a man was arrested for armed assault after rolling over a policeman's foot with his car—allegedly on purpose. The man was apparently angry with the officer because he had been issued a highway safety code violation ticket as part of a traffic control operation.
But in an unexpected turn of events, Quebec newspaper La Presse published a story quoting confidential documents that indicate the accident leading to the five-year-old's death happened during a surveillance operation. The independent investigation report filed by Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) investigators to the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions (DCPP) states the Sûreté Du Québec (SQ) officer was trailing a person of interest during a major Unité permanente anticorruption (UPAC) investigation targeting "provincial MPs, very influential businessmen and high-ranking government official." The leaked report also says "a physical surveillance was necessary" to keep track of the suspect's movements, essentially clearing the unidentified 29-year-old officer involved in the crash. Even though the name of the subject was redacted, police had forgotten to omit the name from a photocopy of one of the investigating officer's notebooks. La Presse then confirmed the person of interest as Robert Parent, former director of the Quebec Liberal Party.
In a statement published Friday afternoon, Quebec's DCPP stated that it didn't believe there was enough evidence to lay charges against the SQ officer, suggesting that if there were any violations to the Highway Safety Code, they were justified, explaining that agents in a surveillance operation "must act promptly and are authorised to exceed the speed limits if the circumstances allow it." The DCPP also hinted that the father of the child who died, Mike Belance, who was also driving the car hit by police, might have been partly responsible for the accident.
But while this may conveniently take some of the heat off the SQ for their decision not to charge the as-yet-unnamed officer, the report seems to bring up more questions than answers.
In a press release published Friday evening, advocacy group la Ligue des droits et libertés raised even more questions "casting doubts on the independence of the very process of the investigation," including how and when police determined that the father was, as the DCPP suggested, partly responsible.
"From my perspective it doesn't change much," says police expert Stéphane Berthomet. "This has always been a problem for all police forces: to decide what to do when there is an accident and a third party is injured." In this particular case Berthomet questions the risk assessment that was made.
It might be OK to cross on a red light or to skip a stop sign, but in his opinion there was "no reason to take such extreme risks" as driving over 120 km/h to catch up with a target who could easily be found again later on.
"We wonder how this [leak] could have happened," Jean-Philippe Guay, press secretary to Minister of Public Safety Lise Thériault, told VICE. "This is not supposed to happen," Guay said. While he fears the information made public by the media—which includes the name of a high-ranking target in a UPAC investigation—might hinder a long-lasting investigation into corruption and illegal political financing, he also recognizes that this story reminds us that public perception of "police investigating police" is still very negative.
According to Berthomet, the information about the recent case must have come from "someone really well-informed," either close to SPVM investigators or from within the DCPP's office. "It can't be someone from the outside."
But withholding compromising information and leaking positive information to the media is a damage-control strategy that police have used for decades, according to the Collective Opposed to Police Brutality (COBP), who identified this as one of 12 systemic problems with police investigations into police-related incidents.
Guay told VICE that the Minister of Public Safety has made the implementation of an independent investigation bureau a "priority," and that the bureau should be functional by the end of 2015 or early 2016. Until then, the Minister does not want to interfere in police-led investigations, which Guay reiterated are "independent and rigorous."
The outrage over this case is further fuelled by continuing evidence of a widespread culture within police forces to bend rules, and of police officers' ability to ignore their responsibility for decisions they make while on duty. It speaks to larger concerns about a culture of abuse of authority and a lack of accountability, in a system where Quebec police officers most often than not have total impunity when they kill or injure civilians while in service—even when they take unnecessary risks, as illustrated recently in the Villanueva case.
Indeed, while the burden of proof is always in favour of police officers, the same cannot be said of civilians. "We understand that police are not ordinary citizens, and that's not right," former Justice Minister Marc Bellemare told La Presse on Sunday about the recent incident. "I'm convinced anyone else would have been accused."
Independent investigations are a key part in a system where police officers more often than not have total impunity when they kill or injure civilians while in service—even when they seemingly take unnecessary risks as in the most recent case. That it took the death of an innocent five-year-old child to make it obvious shows how deep the roots of police impunity actually runs.
SQ spokesperson Christine Coulombe declined VICE's request for an interview. A Ministry of Justice public relations officer directed us to the DCPP for comments, the DCPP hadn't returned any of our calls before publication.