Crise de confiance – Who will protect us from the police?

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Last Monday two people were shot and killed by Montreal police. One was intermittently homeless and severely psychologically disturbed. The other was going to work, killed by the ricochet of one of three or four bullets fired by an SPVM constable. News updates pertinent to this story have been spotty and unfortunately eclipsed by F-1 weekend, and the key spokesperson for the SQ has been tight-lipped about how the investigation is proceeding. This week it came out that the constables involved were not interviewed until several days after the fact.

The SQ had returned to the scene, indicating it was both unusual and not unusual simultaneously. Those involved, much like the deceased, were brought to CHUM St-Luc, where they were sequestered from the public. CCTV footage from UQAM (which has yet to be made public) is said to exonerate the constables, as the mentally unstable Mario Hamel supposedly charged them with a knife.

At the end of the day, the SPVM is once again embroiled in scandal, the people of Montreal have a little less faith in law enforcement, and whatever seems obvious and factual in this case is muddled by collusion and potential conflicts of interest. Once again, the SQ, previously well known for the aborted siege of Kanehsatake and their propensity to send ‘agents-provocateurs’ into the fray at various demonstrations, have been brought in to investigate the actions of their municipal colleagues. Such is life in Montreal, and the regularity of this scenario has doubtless numbed the populace to the continuing problem of police brutality and excessive force. I’d like to think this was our quaint provincial problem, another element of badassery for a city high on street-cred; “don’t fuck with Montrealers, cuz they’ve been schooled by the Montreal fuzz” that sort of thing but there’s something about this particular case which stands out and has started affecting the way I think.

The word ‘tragedy’ has been artlessly applied by the few people available to speak openly about the case, such as the seemingly mal-informed Sureté public-relations hack. I suppose it is somewhat tragic, though in PR parlance ‘tragedy’ implies ‘accident’, and there’s nothing accidental about pulling the trigger of a ‘quick-action’ service pistol whilst aiming it at a man’s torso. Moreover, it can hardly be accidental when three or four shots are fired.

I can’t believe that there’s anything accidental or necessary about this shooting, when there are so many potential alternatives to using deadly force. I don’t mean to play armchair police-officer, and I still believe that the majority of law-enforcement in this country are regular people who work hard at their jobs and take themselves and their work with utmost seriousness. That being said, it increasingly looks to me as though we may have a law-enforcement problem in this country, one which is beginning to mimic the well known problems south of forty-nine in terms of excessive force, though fortunately not yet in terms of frequency.

For one, a security guard at the St-Luc hospital, which has its fair share of mentally and psychologically impaired visitors, told a local reporter they handle violent psychopaths and delusional schizophrenics with muscle, numbers, latex gloves and ‘talk-down techniques’. Hamel was well known in his circles, and had made some progress dealing with his mental health issues. That being said, when police approached him that fateful day, he was ripping open garbage bags and tossing their contents into the street.

I can’t imagine how one could be a good cop and not know the curbside insane intimately, but apparently the constables involved in this fatal shooting saw him as a lethal threat and used, as they would describe it, appropriate force. Their seemingly indiscriminate shots also hitting a maintenance man, Patrick Limoges, on his way to start an early morning shift. As he fell, nearby construction workers rushed to his aid, only to be dissuaded by gun-toting constables who warned them away from assisting the stricken man. It’s either for reasons of crime-scene control or because those involved weren’t sure which one was the threat. Either way I’m unimpressed.

We don’t need to dig up the growing list of innocent citizens killed by the SPVM for one reason or another over the years it’s long and there’s a fairly accurate list online somewhere. Nor do we need to contextualize this incident within the scope of post-9/11 public security planning, or even our country’s own sordid history of police brutality and misconduct you can do your own research, and I know it will be worth your time. That said, what we ought to be focused on are some of the more basic elements of law-enforcement in this city, this province and country. For starters, are guns necessary in the first place? Could Mario Hamel have been stopped with a taser, a baton or pepper spray? If so, why were these weapons not employed instead? A few days after Hamel and Limoges were killed, SPVM constables responded to a distressed woman in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve similarly armed with a large knife; they tased her and that was that.

Second, would regular neighbourhood foot patrols have helped police identify Hamel as fundamentally innocent, given his psychological problems? Would Hamel have felt as threatened if he recognized the intervening constables?

I don’t want to fault the people who did the shooting as much as the system which put a gun in their hand in the first place. I want to blame the system that has flooded our city streets with poor unfortunates who require counselling and medication, but instead will die as anonymous corpses frozen to sidewalks. I want to know what changed our perspective; at what point did a cop go from being a civil-service employee, like a teacher, social-worker or mail-carrier, to someone who exists above and beyond the realm of normalcy an individual who enforces laws, ostensibly for the public’s benefit, and yet doesn’t have to play by the same rules as the rest of us. Where’s my Police Brotherhood when I fuck up at work? Why can’t I take people’s cameras without reason? Why can’t I push people off the street with impunity? Why am I paying the salary, however indirectly, of the people who may one day kill or abuse me, perhaps tragically?

But the most disturbing fact, after all that has been written about recent incidents of police brutality and misconduct, here in the 514 or elsewhere in Canada, is that the public is as paralyzed collectively as they are individually. We’ve become numb. Tolerant of yet another excess. But unlike apathy or deep-fried food, the excesses of law-enforcement, culminating in abuse and brutality as we’ve witnessed over the course of the last decade, will undoubtedly compromise our individual sovereignty.

People must act now before it’s too late, and though this nightmare scenario has ‘been done’ insofar as we’ve seen it manifest itself across the silver screen, it doesn’t mean we aren’t already in the process of losing our collective assurance to individual freedom. And freedom from needless death is pretty crucial it’s one of the ‘pillars of difference’ that distinguishes our society from the dictatorships we precision-bomb.

And yet, here we are; on my short walk back from work the other day I passed five banks and a synagogue. Each had a security guard out front.

3 comments

  • I heard a caller on CBC’s Radio Noon ask why tranquilizer darts aren’t used, yet another non-lethal way to subdue a ‘threatening’ individual. I wholeheartedly agree with the argument that dealing with the mentally ill in a neighbourhood notorious for people with psychological/drug-related problems should be a well-established practice, to the point that the man could have recognized the police or vice versa. Communication, negotiation, mediation, where were those skills? And why is it at all allowable to discharge firearms in Montreal’s downtown core, where there are liable to be dozens or more of people in close proximity. What will people do now? Is there a demonstration or a vigil in the works? Is a change gonna come?

  • Another serious issue is one of oversight.

    The police oversee themselves in matters like these. There is NO third party oversight. There is NO ONE to whom they are accountable. Their union is so strong that in the case of what, if an ordinary citizen did it, would be called manslaughter at best, is going to be rewarded with a slap on the wrist and a paid vacation.

    Honestly, seeing a police officer on the street scares the living hell out of me.

  • Apparently, ours is the only police force that doesn’t have an independent internal affairs or a civilian oversight committee.

    This has to change. We can’t live in fear of the SPVM, but I know we’d have less to complain about if they were afraid of us, the people, and the legal means we’re owed.

    And btw – this story seems to have been completely swept under the rug.

    Typical; I think Montrealers have an almost non-existent memory.

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