A video of a verbal altercation between a Montreal police officer and a panhandler ignited controversy after it surfaced online Thursday night, but the head of a local shelter says it is not typical of relations between the city's homeless and police.
Matthew Pearce, the head of Montreal’s Old Brewery Mission shelter, said relations between police and the homeless are generally good.
The cellphone video, which appeared on YouTube, shows a French-speaking officer telling a man dressed in shorts and a T-shirt that four people had complained about him because he was behaving aggressively while asking for change.
The officer tells the man, who was later identified as having mental health issues, that he has to calm down and find a place to warm up. Then he tells the man that he will tie him to a pole for an hour if he gets another complaint.
“Thankfully we don’t see this kind of thing very often,” Pearce told Radio-Canada. “We have very good relations with the police and this is an exception to that rule.”
While denouncing the actions of the officer in the video, Pearce said calling the police is the correct response to such situations, especially when there is a risk to the person’s health.
Montreal police Cmdr. Ian Lafrenière said the actions of the officer in the video could not be explained.
“It’s unacceptable,” he said, adding that the panhandler in the video was later located and taken to hospital.
The officer is facing disciplinary action.
"It's so sad, because we put a lot of effort during the week. We had two patrollers per shift just to keep a liaison, a link with vulnerable people," Lafrenière said.
Pearce said that, from what he's seen, the police have taken the incident seriously.
"They sound mostly frustrated because I think they feel they’ve been working very hard and then this act of one officer has sort of pulled them backwards," he said.
Mental illness among Montreal's homeless
Pearce is imploring people not to assume the incident is representative of how the Montreal police deal with the city's homeless.
"What it looks like is that this officer was frustrated. He said some boneheaded remarks that he shouldn’t have said and a threat that no reasonable person would think would be acted on, but you’re talking about someone with a mental illness so you don’t know how they’re going to interpret it," Pearce said.
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre called the incident “indefensible.”
He also said it was important not to interpret the incident as representative of Montreal police as a whole.
“There are others in the [Montreal police department] who are doing a tremendous job [on the issue of homelessness],” he said.
Pearce said the officer's comments were a poor choice of words, and that the Montreal force is now tasked with the job of explaining to people that this is not normal police behaviour.
"They’re trying to explain it to the public as, ‘Look don’t think of this as a general way that people in the police force are acting with the homeless,'" Pearce said.
Adis Simidzija, who shot the footage outside of the Jean-Talon metro station Thursday, said the officer left shortly after he noticed him taking the video on his cellphone. He said he tried to get the officer’s badge number but was only given his family name.
“I found the officer’s attitude inhumane,” he said, and alleged that it’s common among police.
Simidzija said he posted the video to get people talking about police and society's mistreatment of the homeless. He and another bystander tried to offer the homeless man assistance after the police left but the man refused.
He gave him some clothing that he had with him instead and called around to different organizations to see if there was one that could help, even though the man said he did not want assistance.
Lafrenière said the man, who was known to police, was found by a special squad Thursday night and was brought to a hospital.