The Wall of Silence: Systemic Protection of Police Leaves Relatives of Victims of Police Killings in the Dark
The Wall of Silence
Systemic protection of police leaves relatives of victims of police killings in the dark.
By Simon Van Vliet; December 19, 2012 - The Dominion
MONTREAL – On the night of Feb. 16, 2012, Josiane Millette called 911 because she feared her boyfriend, Jean-François Nadreau, was going to commit suicide. When five officers from the Montreal police showed up [at] the door, Nadreau panicked, picked up a machete and moved towards the officers shouting: “Go away!”
He was shot in the chest and died on the spot.
“There shouldn't be anymore lives destroyed,” Millette wrote in a statement issued on Oct. 19 as part of the Justice for Victims of Police Killings Coalition campaign to end police violence and impunity. “No one should be victim of such a tragedy. No one deserves this.”
Several incidents in Quebec, including many severe injuries during the frequent protests earlier this year, have raised public awareness on the abusive use of force by police.
In a press conference on Nov. 13, civil society groups asked for a public independent inquiry into police operations during the student strike, with a larger mandate of reflecting upon the creation of a transparent and impartial civil surveillance system over police work.
Though police brutality was particularly obvious during the recent social turmoil in Quebec, problems of violence and impunity have been around for decades throughout the country. In 2012, various police-related incidents leading to serious injuries or deaths have been reported from Nova Scotia all the way to British Columbia.
“This doesn't happen to 'criminals',” Julie Matson told the Dominion at the annual Oct. 22 commemorative vigil for victims of police killings in Montreal. “It happens to regular people.”
Her father, Ben Matson, died in custody of Vancouver police in 2002 of restraint-associated cardiac arrest. Despite evidence of a severe beating, the investigation resulted in no criminal charges for the officers involved and the Coroner's Office inquest concluded [it was an] accidental death.
The case was closed, without closure for Matson's family.
Mainstream media generally look at these events as isolated incidents. Yet, according to the Justice for Victims of Police Killings Coalition, in Montreal alone, there have been at least 60 police-related deaths since 1987. There are no comprehensive statistics on police-related deaths in Canada, but the coalition listed names of some 180 people who died – either during police operations or in custody – in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and British-Columbia.
A closer look at the documented cases indicates a general pattern. Victims of police killings tend to fit a certain profile of poverty, homelessness, drug or alcohol intoxication, mental problems or belong to ethnic, religious or social minorities. Events start with a routine police intervention; things rapidly get out of hand and end with use of lethal force by officers.
Several cases illustrate this pattern: Farshad Mohammadi, a homeless refugee with mental health issues under a deportation order to Iran was killed in the Montreal Metro on Jan. 6, 2012.
Mario Hamel, a man with a heavy psychiatric background was shot to death in downtown Montreal on June 7, 2011 (a bystander, Patrick Limoges, was also hit and killed by a lost bullet during that incident).
Freddy Villanueva, died on Aug. 8, 2008, after a police officer had attempted to arrest his brother, Dany, – on charges of illegal betting during a dice game – in a Montreal North park.
In 1983, Sgt. Dennis Tueller of the Salt Lake City Police Department conducted an experiment, where he concluded that “an average healthy adult male” can cover a distance of approximately 21 feet in 1.5 seconds, which is about the time it takes for an officer to draw out his handgun, aim and shoot. Based on Tueller's “How close is too close?” theory, most North American police academies instruct officers to shoot when a potential assailant armed with an edged weapon enters the 21-foot danger zone and refuses to disarm.
Each Canadian province has its own policy regarding abuse and illegitimate police violence. The Ontario Special Investigation Unit (SIU) was the first civilian investigations mechanism into police conduct and has become a model for other jurisdictions in Canada and abroad interested [in] oversight on police work. On Nov. 29, the Quebec minister of Public Safety presented a bill which will create an independent investigation bureau, a civilian-run agency inspired by the SIU.
But important gaps remain in that system, president of the Rights and Liberties League, Dominique Peschard, told the Dominion at the Nov. 13 press conference. “There are many former police officers involved [with the unit] and there is solidarity between the investigators and the [officers] who are being investigated,” he said. According to official SIU statistics, 3,822 incidents – including 523 deaths – have been investigated by the unit since 1990. Charges have been laid in only 102 cases.
Canadian criminologist Jean-Claude Bernheim doubts civilian investigations into police-related events can be effective. “It is not really independent,” he said in a Nov. 8 interview, broadcast on CISM 89.3 FM, referring to the fact that most civil inquests rely on information provided by the police.
Secrecy surrounding police inquiries not only keeps information away from the public, but it can keep civilian investigators out of the loop, as the investigation into the death of Levi Schaeffer has proven.
Schaeffer was shot by an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officer in 2009. The officer involved in the shooting and the only witness – another officer – held off their notes until they had been counseled by an OPP Association (OPPA) attorney. The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled last year that such police note vetting contradicts provincial regulations, but the police's attorneys will ask the Supreme Court to overturn the decision next April.
“I have no information base I can rely upon,” SIU Director Ian Scott said upon closing the Schaeffer investigation. “Because I cannot conclude what probably happened, I cannot form a reasonable doubt that the subject officer in this matter committed a criminal offence.”
Since there are no criminal charges, there will be no more investigation into Schaeffer's violent death, but the Coalition Justice for Levi sees in the Supreme Court case an “opportunity to challenge long standing, deeply defended, O.P.P. practices of lawyer note vetting and the retaining of the same O.P.P.A lawyer for both subject and witness officers implicated in a Special Investigations Unit investigation.”
Bernheim thinks that the overall ineffectiveness of police oversight bodies in charging police officers with criminal offenses is by design. “Governments put in place ineffective mechanisms,” he said. “It is not in the State's interest to have police officers charged; the State needs the police to maintain itself.” To Bernheim, the harsh truth no-one wants to tell is that “the police is not there to protect the safety of people, but to protect the security of the State.” In return, he argues, governments protect the police.
For example, in 2008, the Ontario Ombudsman recommended changes in the province's oversight system. He asked that the SIU not hire more ex-police investigators and that the government forcefully respond to police non-cooperation. Dismissing these recommendations, the Ministry of the Attorney general decided, “largely due to vehement police opposition,” not to enforce “the recommended legislative changes in the near term,” as the Ombudsman reported last year.
The penal justice system is “a political institution”, refracting change and complacent with the police, Berhneim explains. Relatives of victims across Canada face a wall of silence protecting police officers who abuse the force they are entrusted with. Outside that wall, families and relatives of victims are left with nothing but their grief and unanswered questions about the causes and circumstances of their loved one's death.
Take the family of Anas Bennis, killed in 2005 by Montreal police. Anas allegedly attacked an officer with a knife while coming home from his prayer at the local mosque. Three years later, a public Coroner's inquest into his death was ordered, but the Montreal Police Brotherhood filed proceedings to have it canceled.
It took two years before the Quebec Superior Court ruled against the Brotherhood's request. The Coroner's Office and the Ministry of Public Safety refused to cover the Bennis family's legal fees and denied the Justice for Anas Coalition's request to be recognized as an interested party. As a result, the inquiry was held without participation of the family or the coalition who had been demanding it for five years. The only participants ended up being lawyers representing the police and the City of Montreal – who had opposed it from start, arguing it would be a waste of time and of taxpayer's money.
Seven years after Anas's tragic death, his family continues the fight for truth and justice – alongside other relatives and supporters of victims – in the hope that, eventually, police violence will not go unpunished anymore.
Simon Van Vliet is a Montreal-based community journalist, member of Association des journalists indépendants du Québec. He works and volunteers with CISM 89.3 FM, Coopérative de journalisme indépendant and the Montreal Media Coop.