Police bias in shooting investigations a 'reality'; Ontario ombudsman wades in; Quebec should scrap

Police bias in shooting investigations a 'reality'; Ontario ombudsman wades in; Quebec should scrap Bill 46, Marin says, and install civilian oversight of probes

The Montreal Gazette

Wednesday February 29, 2012
By: Kevin Dougherty

Ontario ombudsman André Marin, whose name has come up repeatedly in National Assembly hearings on a proposed law on police shootings, says the Quebec bill should be scrapped.

Public Security Minister Robert Dutil said at the opening of hearings on Bill 46 that he wants to retain Quebec's contentious practice of assigning one police force to investigate the shootings of another, except with new civilian oversight.

Dutil cited reports by Marin critical of Ontario's Special Investigations Unit, a civilian body.

The SIU alone, not Ontario police officers, probe police shootings in Ontario. The unit includes former officers, however.

At the hearings Tuesday, Liberal MNA Vincent Auclair chided Marin, saying the Ontario ombudsman "has authorized himself to do something extraordinary - intervening in a Quebec file, to express his opinion on a Quebec bill."

In a telephone interview, Marin said the biggest problem with the SIU is the lack of government support to end "vehement police opposition" to its investigations.

"It's not an interprovincial issue," said Marin, a former director of the SIU.

He said Quebec can learn from SIU's shortcomings - and successes.

"Quebec has an opportunity to teach Ontario a lesson."

His comments came on the heels of another police shooting in Quebec, this time in the Saguenay.

Police say they were called to a home in La Baie on Monday night and found a knifewielding man threatening his girlfriend. Police opened fire, and the man, 23, was killed.

The Sûreté du Québec was been called in to investigate.

On Monday, Quebec Ombudsman Raymonde Saint-Germain called Bill 46 "a blatant waste of public money" in her testimony at the hearings.

She said the bill would not end the perception - particularly among minority groups, whose young men are frequent victims of police shootings - that police investigations are not impartial.

Marin said Saint-Germain and civil liberties groups have been "very diplomatic in talking about perceptions of partiality and bias."

"I'm going to go further and tell you that it's not just perception. It's reality," Marin said.

"The police investigating police do not do so with the same level of dispatch and impartiality as when they are investigating a civilian."

He suggested that Dutil, in siding with police against the ombudsman, had been taken in by police lobbying.

"I will tell you that the most powerful special interest group in society today is the police unions," which are well funded and "carry an enormous, disproportionate amount of clout with politicians," Marin said.

At the hearings Tuesday, lawyers representing the Quebec Bar Association suggested the bill should be amended to allow civilian observers to speak to the police under investigation and to investigating officers, and to visit the scene of the death.

"The powers that are now in the legislation are not sufficient," said a Bar representative, Lucie Joncas.

"We need to grant the supervisor more powers for sure."

Marin criticized the Bar proposal. "We need to scrap Bill 46. The whole premise is wrong."

He said civilian observers should be empowered to conduct the investigation.

At present, he said, police involved in a shooting may not be interviewed for days, weeks or - in the case of the 2008 shooting death of Fredy Villanueva - ever.

"You don't want tainted evidence," Marin said. "You want to have an agency that conducts oversight that reaches out to witnesses, interviews them properly, impartially, collects the evidence. Makes the call."

He added: "There are a lot of attempts by police unions to taint this as a complex legal issue. It's really not all that complicated."

While most criminal investigations are "who-done-its," Marin noted, with police shootings "we know who did it."

The question becomes: "Did the officer have legal justification" to pull the trigger?