Guns and Roses – a brief history of violence

Gazette(?) photo from the 2010 Anti-Police Brutality Demo, our annual headbashing festival

Another week, another round of cops killing unarmed, though ostensibly dangerous people. Three incidents in three weeks in which Montréal police discharged their weapons, resulting in two deaths. First, January 26th in Rosemont, then on Feb. 7th, in Beaconsfield, and again on Feb. 16th in CDN (see the view from Toronto); just a reminder – today is the 21st. Underlying these recent incidents is a long history of Montréal police brutality and several high-profile cases of lethal-force under questionable circumstances. The Villanueva Case has cast a long shadow, and the SPVM’s participation in last June’s G20 Conference in Toronto hasn’t done much to improve their public image. What’s worse is the Québec law which has cops investigating other cops – which means the SQ investigates the SPVM almost exclusively. It may seem as though Montréal has a high crime rate; the recent series of arson attacks and the still unsolved murder of local artist (and I’m proud to say I met him, he was a decent guy) Bad News Brown will only add fuel to fire come election time. As our belligerent and autocratic dictator Stephen Harper warns the people crime is spiraling out of control, he may be able to dupe more people than just Gilles Duceppe to follow him on an bogus anti-crime crusade. It’s great fodder for the electorate, as the Willie Horton Scandal demonstrated so clearly.

What may not be immediately apparent is that Montréal’s homicide rate, as an example, is comparatively low for a major North American city, and its been dropping too, hovering around 35 per year for the last few years. Gang violence, by contrast is supposedly rising. ‘Gang violence’ seems like a meaningless term to me because its so vague, but it hits home – especially in the middle and upper class suburbs, where the very idea of gangs operating nearby may translate into lost property value. Note as well, it seems as though every ‘gang member’ arrested in this city is either from Montréal North or Little Burgundy. I didn’t realize the gangs were as territorial as Hipsters. That aside, come election time, whether Provincially or Federally, the conservative elements in our society are going to push for a tough-on-crime agenda. Harper’s made it clear, he wants more cops and more prisons, and the mayor’s of major cities will want to get in on the spending spree. More cops with more guns – a quantity over quality situation develops and suddenly our homicide and ‘gang-violence’ rates will both skyrocket. Why? The Gangs and the Police are locked in an interminable war, and when you break it down, there are roughly the same number of major police forces as major gangs and organized crime syndicates. The police ultimately have the advantage, not because they appeal to the people, but because they operate as a singular force.

The level of collusion, corruption and inherent indiscipline in the SPVM, coupled with the very real possibility of fear-vote driven police expansion, could lead to many more examples of excessive force here in Montréal. This in turn will only cause the gangs to swell their numbers and increase the total number of firearms in the city. Getting-tough-on-crime legislation never works, because it generally only leads to more violence and death. Consider the LAPD’s approach to crime fighting in the 1980s and 1990s, when the CRASH Unit was unleashed to combat LA’s street gangs, and the Rampart Scandal demonstrated how quickly such units degenerate into unscrupulous corruption and outrageous abuse. When the police are seen by the people to be as bad or worse than the people they’re tasked to control, society breaks down in a big way. This is what happens when a police force decides to take an almost universally aggressive approach to fighting crime – eventually, the chronic stress will cause the people to go crazy en masse. Think winning the quarter-final against Boston is bad, check this out:

Over the weekend my cousin proposed an interesting solution to the recent spate of cop-shootings. He suggested that the Montréal police adopt a system pairing a rookie cop with a veteran cop and divide the weapons between them, so that the elder, more experienced constable would have the use of a handgun. The rationale being that an inexperienced cop may be more inclined to panic and use excessive force. I concur with the point on youthful inexperience serving as root cause for panic leading to the deadly use of a firearm, as demonstrated not only recently, but in the case of the Villanueva Shooting as well. However, a key element in an experienced officer’s more prudent use of a firearm is almost entirely dependent on their years carrying one. I would hope that a retiring constable would take immense pride and satisfaction in knowing they had never once used their weapon, and that they would be appropriately recognized for doing so. My cousin suggested 35 as the age in which SPVM officers would be allowed to carry firearms, though I can’t help but think there would be an “initial-use giddiness” regardless of age.

What if we were to adopt a more British style of policing? Specifically, I’m referring to the limited use of police firearms in a society in which firearms are already highly restricted. Increasing the penalty related to firearms offenses within the metropolitan area, coupled with a new policy which disarmed the majority of local police and placed a new focus on community relations (ie, by re-introducing paired pedestrian patrols), could have dramatic effects on reducing violent gun deaths and excessive force. Ideally two fit police officers, trained in hand-to-hand combat and equipped with mace, batons and hand-cuffs could operate just as effectively as the armed patrols we have today; how often do they really need their weapons? Armed officers in the UK are in the minority when compared to the entire police apparatus, and they are trained to exercise extreme caution in the use of deadly force. The UK has one of the world’s lowest gun-homicide rates in the world.

Unfortunately for us locals, we have a history of gun violence that begs the question as to just how well trained the SPVM actually is. The 1987 police killing of Anthony Griffin is still fresh in the mind of Montréal’s black community, while the 1991 killing of Marcellus Francois re-enforced the perception that the SPVM was careless, incompetent, or both. Things haven’t gotten much better vis-a-vis the SPVM’s use of excessive force since then, as the “flics-assassins” watchdog blog attests. Consider as well this 1995 New York Times article on being young and black in Québec.

The SPVM isn’t aggressive with immigrants and minorities uniquely, though calls of racial profiling are regular. The generally aggressive attitude of our police force is best defined by the extent to which one officer went during his career as principle SPVM enforcer. This is the infamous case of “Shotgun” Bob Menard, a Montréal police constable and undercover officer who is rumoured to have killed between 10 and 15 people while on the job, at least once with an assault rifle of his own choosing. It should be noted that Menard was initially responsible for taking down bordellos, gambling dens and gangs, but then progressed to neutralizing a mafia don and then finishing his career blasting away at bank robbers. At around the same time, the SPVM ‘morality squad’ was responsible for the Sex Garage Raid and subsequent police brutality which ultimately culminated in the unit’s partial disbandment, firings and a new policy towards peaceful protests. Still though, seems like a constant two-steps forward, one-step back.

There are many, many more examples of extreme force used by the Montréal police, and after these recent events, we as a society need to ask whether policing is working locally. Can it be improved? Can disarming a portion of the force and integrating police back into the community they serve lower the rate of violent gun deaths and reverse this terrible trend? Is it wise to have a police force which seems to be increasingly racially, economically and psychologically separated from the people they are supposed to serve?

This is an issue for all citizens in a society, and it must be taken very seriously. I would personally advocate for significantly fewer armed officers and stricter control of illicit weapons, increased community presence, mandatory urbanisation and diversification of the force and a substantial investment in surveillance, communications and intelligence sharing between different levels of law-enforcement. But most of all, police must be accountable to a civilian oversight committee charged with determining whether lethal force was justified in a case by case basis, with stiff penalties, up to and including prosecution should such a panel rule in favour of the victim.

We must take control of crime by controlling our fear, controlling inequity – we must never live under the constant stress present in a society in which the line between criminals and law enforcement is blurred into non-existence. We can’t allow anything remotely resembling the 1992 Riots to happen here, and it scares me to think how the situations may be more comparable than most would think. Los Angeles re-bounded successfully – would we be as lucky? Or is ours a fate worse than Detroit, Baltimore or New Orleans?