Montreal Gazette: Shooting probe has been secretive

A protest today against the police shooting of Fredy Villanueva could be unusual indeed. The organizers plan to use that most incisive and peaceful of techniques to make their point – wit.

They’ll hold a dice tournament in the same Montréal-Nord park where two officers interrupted an open-air dice game last summer on grounds it was illegal. In the altercation that followed, they shot three participants, one fatally. The point of the tournament is to play up the way police enforce anti-gambling laws against people they don’t like.

But the demonstration’s more important value is that it will also call attention to a far larger issue: the way in which the Quebec government is overseeing the investigation into the police shooting of Villanueva and, by extension, the way the government handles all police killings of civilians.

There has been a surprising lack of media attention to provincial prosecutors’ announcement last week that they had decided on the basis of the Sûreté du Québec’s report that they would lay no charges against either of the two officers involved in the incident. Prosecutor François Brière told a press conference that the SQ report showed that Constable Jean-Loup Lapointe had legitimately feared for his own life and that of the other constable.

My problem is not with the conclusion that Brière and other prosecutors reached. Lapointe might very well be blameless.

Brière’s recounting of the SQ’s report certainly made it appear that way. He described five angry young men striking Lapointe with their fists and kicking his partner. Villanueva, he said, had one hand on Lapointe’s throat and the other hand near his holstered pistol and pepper spray. Lapointe managed to draw the gun and start shooting.

Sounds like an absolutely desperate situation. No wonder there’s been so little criticism of the decision not to prosecute.

But problems with this version abound.

Let’s not linger on the fact that Quebec made it standard procedure long ago for another police force (in this case the SQ) to investigate the killing or maiming of civilians by police. The potential for backscratching between police forces has been decried too often to warrant more of the same today. Let’s focus on new aspects.

For the record, here’s what the public was promised. Mayor Gérald Tremblay said last summer that he had asked Quebec Public Security Minister Jacques Dupuis that the SQ investigation be « transparent, » « impartial » and that all findings be made public. Dupuis responded that indeed the process would have « toute transparence. » This reassured many people.

Here’s what’s transpired so far.

Two videos of the incident exist. One is from a security camera, the other from a citizen’s cellphone. The SQ investigators examined them, but the public cannot. If it could, it could ascertain whether they corroborated the finding of legitimate defence.

The SQ report itself has not been made public. We have only Brière’s account of it – a second-hand version.

The public has no explanation as to why one of the men, according to his lawyer, was shot in the back. It’s not normal for a person whose back is turned to be very threatening.

The public has no explanation as to why Lapointe had to fire four shots. You’d think one or two would be enough to make unarmed assailants pull back.

Brière says the SQ interviewed the assailants and other witnesses, yet in his account he takes the perspective of Lapointe himself – what the officer felt, not what his adversaries felt. Only one point of view is available. Curious.

Brière acknowledged to me yesterday that Lapointe, as a suspect, invoked his legal right to remain silent and refused to be interviewed by the SQ. The other officer, Stéphanie Pilotte, was only a witness, but the SQ did not interview her, either. Both submitted only written accounts.

The « golden hour » is what police sometimes call the period right after a crime. It’s the time in which witnesses can be expected to give the most accurate of an incident. Yet Brière told me that Pilotte had several days before submitting her report. Lapointe had more than a month.

The next step is for Quebec Court Judge Robert Sansfaçon to carry out a coroner’s inquest. It will be public, and Brière says the judge will have the discretion whether to make the videos and SQ report public. So far, however, the process is anything but transparent. Lapointe’s actions might well have been proper, but the process that reached that conclusion was improper.

I hope the judge interprets his mandate broadly enough so that he examines not only the shooting but that secretive process itself, including the kid-glove treatment of the officers.

The problem is not citizens playing dice. It’s the perception that the law-enforcement system is using loaded dice.

[Montreal Gazette, December 13, 2008]

Original article can be found here.

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