Denis Coderre's bold defence of a police chief under fire

As it emerged last week that nine journalists were spied upon by police in Quebec, politicians of all stripes agreed police may have overstepped their boundaries. But one was willing to buck this trend: Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre.

The mayor might be feeling lonely standing by Montreal police

Mayor Denis Coderre hand-picked Philippe Pichet, right, to lead Montreal's police force. (Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press)

The surveillance of journalists by Quebec police has drawn concern from corners both near and far, with everyone from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to NSA whisteblower Edward Snowden offering their thoughts on the issue.

With every new revelation last week — during which it emerged that not one but nine journalists were spied upon — a consensus broadened among politicians that police may have overstepped their boundaries.   

There was, however, one politician willing to buck this trend: Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre.

A 'public lynching'

The mayor threw down a gauntlet with typical flourish on Sunday, describing criticism of his city's police chief as a "public lynching."

The pressure on Chief Philippe Pichet has grown particularly intense following the latest revelation in the spying scandal.

It emerged Saturday that Montreal police had not only sought to collect metadata from the phone of one La Presse journalist, but in fact wanted to listen to the conversations that two journalists were having with police officers who were under investigation.

That appeared to contradict what Pichet told journalists earlier in the week, when he made no mention of the second journalist or of seeking to listen to the conversations of journalists.

One of the journalists named in the warrant outright called Pichet a "liar." Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée called for his suspension, as did the city hall Opposition, Projet Montréal.

With this in the air, Quebec Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux issued a tweet on Saturday that urged Coderre and Pichet to take action to restore public trust in their institutions.

But Coderre, pugnacious as ever, came to the defence of his police chief. 

"If you have the chief of police saying he didn't do it [listen to journalists' conversation] ... that's significant," Coderre told reporters on Sunday.

He was referring to a carefully worded statement that Pichet released on Saturday, which denied the journalists were explicit targets of electronic surveillance. 

The statement, however, didn't rule out the possibility the journalists could have had some of their conversations listened to by investigators. 

Nor did it mention that the names of the journalists were included in a sworn statement, seen by CBC News, that police submitted to a Quebec Court judge as part of an application for a warrant to conduct electronic surveillance on two fellow officers.  

Both provincial and municipal opposition parties have called on Montreal police Chief Philippe Pichet to be suspended. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Stand by your man

That Coderre has chosen to stand by Pichet is not surprising. Coderre hand-picked Pichet to lead the force last year, so his suspension (or worse) would reflect poorly on the mayor. 

With the municipal election roughly a year away, Coderre can ill-afford major missteps.  

He is already attempting to recover from the fiasco that was his administration's attempt to regulate pit bulls.

The city's proposed bylaw, unveiled earlier this fall, met with protests and is now mired in legal challenges. It fed perceptions the mayor prefers the freestyle, rather than the studied, approach to policy.

Mayor Denis Coderre defended his police chief at a news conference on Sunday. (CBC)

His reaction, so far, to the media spying scandal suggests a more calculated strategy.

No impulsive response this time; the mayor has instead called for reports, two, to get the facts straight. Rushing to judgment, he seemed to imply, would be uncivilized. 

In doing so, Coderre signaled to Pichet's critics that the police chief is not going anywhere, at least for the time being. 

Montreal's charter gives Coderre that prerogative. As much as Lisée may want the Liberal government to get involved, Pichet can't be removed without a recommendation from city council and the public safety committee — two bodies controlled by Coderre's party.

"Give him two arms to cling to," Tammy Wynette sings in Stand by your man. Coderre has just done that for Pichet. 

But that means if the police chief falls, he may take the mayor down with him.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.