Civilian oversight

Quebec to create police watchdog

QUEBEC — The Globe and Mail

Police Police use pepper spray and fight with protesters during an arrest on Sainte-Catharine St. near the Montreal Grand Prix festival area Sunday, June 10, 2012, THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter McCabe Quebec student protests against tuition increases have taken on a broader, anti-capitalist tone. (Peter McCabe/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The Quebec government will finally move ahead on its commitment to create a civilian oversight body to probe incidents involving police, and may also take the exceptional step of setting up an independent inquiry into police brutality during last spring’s student strike over tuition-fee hikes.

In an interview, Public Security Minister Stéphane Bergeron confirmed that a civilian oversight board similar to one in Ontario will be created “in the coming weeks.”

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“We are committed to setting up an independent mechanism of inquiry that will probe into incidents involving the police,” Mr. Bergeron said.

Under the current setup, an outside police force is called into investigate officers of another force when they are involved in incidents where someone has been seriously injured or dies. The practice of having police investigate police, critics charge, has eroded the public’s confidence in the system.

The former Liberal government declined to follow recommendations by the provincial Ombudsman and Quebec Human Rights Commission to create a special investigations unit like the one in Ontario. Instead, the Liberals tabled a bill last year that proposed to create a civilian bureau to “observe” police investigations. The bill was never adopted.

Mr. Bergeron said the system needs to be changed despite the reluctance of some police forces to do so. As is the case in Ontario, a Quebec special investigations unit would have the authority to investigate incidents involving all police forces in the province.

An independent inquiry into police brutality during last spring’s student strike is less certain. The minister said he is still mulling over whether to set one up.

Mr. Bergeron said that while police actions need to stand up to public scrutiny, he would be hesitant to set up a public inquiry if it meant damaging the reputation of police officers who acted properly during the student demonstrations. He said he will carefully consider the need to protect public confidence in the police before determining what avenue to follow in probing last spring’s events.

“I have to examine whether the existing system can respond to the two objectives: that those police officers who performed reprehensible acts be punished, and to re-establish public confidence in our police forces ... and restore the image unduly tarnished last spring,” Mr. Bergeron said.

He suggested that the existing police ethics oversight committee could undertake the inquiry and examine the civilian complaints.

“Do we need to go further than this? That is what I will see,” he said. “Do we need a full public inquiry? That is also something I am looking at. But all I can say is that I am looking at all the options and I will soon decide what to do.”

Civil liberty groups, student federations and social activists have been calling for a full public inquiry into what they call excessive force by the police last spring. An estimated 3,000 people were arrested during more than four months of widespread social unrest.

Several groups have also demanded that the government create an independent body to allow for impartial investigation into police conduct.

A recent incident involving Montreal police constable Stéphanie Trudeau, who was caught on video apparently using excessive force during the arrest of four musicians and artists, brought to the fore again the issue of police profiling of student protesters. Ms. Trudeau referred to those arrested as “rats,” “guitar scratchers” and “red square” protesters.

The reference to the red square worn by those who supported last spring’s student strike had a political connotation that appeared to call into question the neutrality expected from the police in dealing with social unrest.

Mr. Bergeron refused to side with those who argue that some police may be following an ideological, “anti-student” agenda.

“I don’t believe police acted in an ideological way. They performed the job they were hired to do and that is to maintain order and enforce the law,” Mr. Bergeron said.

The minister remains convinced that the incident involving Constable Trudeau is an isolated case, adding that it would be a serious mistake to conclude that all police officers share her view of the student movement.

“Constable Trudeau was certainly hostile towards students and their movement. But I don’t believe she is representative of the entire police force,” Mr. Bergeron said.