Monday, January 4, 2010

Montreal Police Lose Public Relations War

As the Fredy Villanueva saga drones on interminably, it's clear that the Montreal police have taken a public relations beating, a self-inflicted wound for which they have nobody but themselves to blame.

It has been Montreal police policy, for as long as I can remember, to clam up after an officer-related shooting incident and to offer no comment or explanation until after the investigation into the matter is completed. These investigations usually drag for months, sometimes years, leading the public to surmise that the police have something to hide.

Many years ago, I remember an incident wherein a Montreal police car was flagged down by a downtown merchant, who told the officers that he had just been robbed by a man who was running down the street. The officers gave chase and caught up with the robber on Bleury street where the suspect struggled with police while being subdued. Because of the aggressive reaction by the suspect, one of the officers drew his service revolver and in the fracas, shot the suspect, who subsequently died.
It turned out that the 'robber' was a shoplifter, nothing more serious than that.

The officer was shocked. He freely admitted that the shooting was a colossal mistake.
He told investigators that he had made a tragic error, one which he could not explain. He quickly admitted that the situation was well in hand and it was never his intention to pull the trigger. Perhaps it was a case of nerves, a hair trigger or lack of training, it was what it was.

In a rare admission of fault, the then police chief Jacques Duchesneau apologized profusely for the mistake and offered sincere regrets to the family on behalf of the police. Throughout the entire interview, he never mentioned the officer by name or offered him his support.

I knew Jacques Duchesneau quite well at the time, we worked together as members on the board directors of one of Quebec's largest volunteer organizations. I also got to know most of the senior staff of the Montreal police and have forged friendships which I still maintain.

I caught up with Jacques (I think it was at a Canadiens hockey game) soon after the incident and laced into him.

"How could you not publicly support your officer!" I berated him.
He was surprised, to say the least.

"Whadda you mean? The officer was clearly wrong. It would have been wrong not to admit it." he answered.

"Of course he was wrong, but it was a mistake and it's something he'll have to live with the rest of his life. He deserves your support. You should of said something."

"Like what?" he asked.

"You should have gone on the attack. While offering condolences to the family you should have reminded them that their son was a criminal, who rolled the dice when he decided to struggle with the arresting officers.
You needed to show support to your officer and defended him as having committed an unfortunate mistake, a mistake that would never have happened had the criminal not taken the unfortunate actions that he did. The rank and file would have appreciated your support. You shouldn't have thrown your guy under the bus, it wasn't right."

I know many of you don't agree with my assessment, but consider this. When you or I make mistake on the job, even a big one, nobody gets killed, not usually, at any rate. When an armed police officer makes a mistake, it can have tragic consequences.
When criminals set in motion a confrontation with police, there is always the possibility things can go tragically wrong, sometimes for the officer, more often for the criminal.

Fredy Villanueva died because his brother Dany decided to 'test' the officers.

It will be two years before it's determined whether the shooting was justified or a result of the actions of a panicked officer. That's too long an ordeal. At any rate it makes no difference at all to me and it shouldn't matter to you.

In the meantime it's galling to see the members Villanueva family strut around like innocent victims, even as Dany resumes his life of crime as a member of the "Bloods," a Montreal North street gang.

Many people have told me that they can't understand why the officers confronted the gang members over a trivial game of dice. They tell me that this indicates the officers were looking for trouble.

They are wrong.
The war between the police and the gangs is a battle for control of the streets, either the police own them or the criminals do. In the battle for control, the gangs don't play by the rules, but unfortunately the police have to.

One of the tried and true methods of keeping gangs off balance, is to disrupt them by rousting them at every opportunity. It's a legitimate tactic practised by all major police departments across the continent.
Stopping gangsters and conducting a physical search is a productive way to catch them in possession of illegal weapons, drugs, stolen goods or discovering those who are breaking parole conditions. Of course, the police cannot stop and search anyone, including gang members without justification. Police can't pull a car over on a whim or conduct stop and search operations without justifiable cause. It's the law.

So the police look for any valid reason to stop and search gang members.
Jaywalking. Aha!
A broken tail light. Aha!
An illegal dice game in the park. Aha!

Credit these two officers for doing their job. They observed a legal opportunity to make life miserable for the gang members and they took it. Bravo!
By the way, the criminals know the drill, they are used to being hassled by the cops and they hate it.

On this day, Dany Villanueva decided that he wasn't going to take it anymore. He decided to confront the cops.
Not a very bright idea, but these type of thugs usually have violent tempers and impaired reasoning and decision-making faculties. It is likely that it was more galling and humiliating that one of the officers was female. He lost his temper and fought back. Bad mistake....

Witnesses admit that Dany refused to cooperate and was actively resisting being put in handcuffs. Things escalated and the officers drew their weapons.
Fredy either participated in the swarming of the officers or as witnesses told the inquest, was coming to Dany's aid by yanking the officer's hand.

What happened next is an open question, a question that is decidedly beside the point, the shooting that the occurred was the direct result of the actions of Dany and his cohorts.
They rolled the dice and lost. Too bad.

The current police chief of Montreal Yvan Delorme should have gotten out in front of the story a long time ago. He should have made a public statement explaining that while the exact circumstances of the shooting are to be determined, the death of Fredy Villanueva was the direct results of the decision taken by the street thugs to resist his officers. The public would have probably accepted the argument and moved on.

The fiasco around the investigation of the shooting can be laid directly at the feet of the Montreal police who were too timid to defend their officers and too mistrusting of the public's ability to understand and empathize with the officers predicament.


  1. There will be rule of law until police are not above the law.
    Killing a "criminal" by mistake is not only homicide, it is murder; those who legally have weapons have a higher standard of care than the rest of us. The alternative is a police state.
    A chief going out of his way to gett he support of his staff is asking for trouble. His allegiance is not to them. It is to the law.

  2. I have yet to see the evidence of thi "dice " game or any charges related to resisting arrest.The police are afraid to bring this into court where their "discretion" can be questioned.