Montreal police failed to alert ethics commissioner about alleged misconduct involving Indigenous people

For the past two years, as Montreal police have investigated more than 90 allegations of police misconduct involving Indigenous men and women, the force has only notified the commissioner of a possible breach of ethics once.

SPVM probed over 90 misconduct allegations in 2 years, sent only 1 notice of possible ethics breach

CBC News has learned that the office of Quebec Police Ethics Commissioner Marc-André Dowd has not received a single letter about a possible breach of ethics from the SPVM since April 2016.

Quebec's  Police Ethics Commissioner says he was surprised to hear about an incident in 2016 in which Sûreté du Québec officers in Val-d'Or "smiled or laughed" when an Indigenous woman in their custody fell face first while in handcuffs.

The commissioner, Marc-André Dowd, investigates allegations of improper police behaviour in the province. He also has the power to send cases to a disciplinary committee when necessary.

The Val-d'Or incident happened in June 2016, just months after explosive allegations that provincial police were mistreating and abusing Indigenous women rocked the northwestern city, more than 500 kilometres from Montreal, and Quebec as a whole.

The woman ended up with severe bruising all over her head, face, arms and knees after she fell during an escort into a cell at the Val-d'Or detachment.

"We would expect that the police force would advise us of the situation so that we could look into it," Dowd told CBC News this week.

According to the Code of Ethics of Quebec police officers, which falls under the province's Police Act, officers can't be "disrespectful or impolite towards any person."

When there is an alleged breach of ethics, police authorities must tell the person involved in the incident, in writing, that they have one year to lodge a complaint with the Police Ethics Commissioner. 

Police have to send a copy of that letter to the commissioner, as well.

But CBC News has learned the commissioner's office has not received a single letter since April 2016. That's when Montreal police (SPVM) took over the internal complaints of misconduct from the SQ.

The Indigenous woman who fell in the June 2016 incident complained directly to the SPVM in December of that year.

No charges filed in relation to 2016 incident

Earlier this month, Sgt.-Det. Patrick Parent of the SPVM spoke about his investigation of the incident during testimony at the Viens Commission, the inquiry looking into the treatment of Indigenous people by public service agencies in Quebec.

When questioned about the behaviour of the officers involved, Parent told the inquiry he didn't ask the officers why they didn't offer the woman medical help.

"I just asked them what they were doing. We don't necessarily go any further because we weren't there to judge their police misconduct; it was to see if a crime was committed."

Montreal police rarely send alerts to the police ethics commissioner about alleged violations of the code, according to the commissioner's annual reports. (Radio-Canada)

Many Indigenous women in Val-d'Or had pinned their hopes on that particular case, hoping criminal charges would be laid, Parent said.

"One of the problems with a lot of the previous cases was the lack of proof and here we had photos which confirmed her injuries following a police intervention," he testified.

Parent said the SPVM had pictures, as well as a surveillance video showing her fall, which showed "some" of the four officers involved were either smiling or laughing.

He said the case was closed and Quebec prosecutors did not file any charges.

Quebec's Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions (DPCP) has refused to provide any details about that case, or four others. 

Lack of cooperation from police an ongoing issue

Montreal police rarely send alerts to the commissioner about alleged violations of the Code of Ethics, according to the commissioner's annual reports.

In fact, for the past two years, as Montreal police investigated more than 90 allegations of police misconduct involving Indigenous men and women, the force has only notified the commissioner of a possible breach of ethics once.

"We receive a high number of complaints about Montreal police, so there should be an equal number of notices," Dowd said.

That's an issue Dowd said he's been discussing with the SPVM — and one he's been looking to solve since he took over as commissioner 18 months ago.

It's important "to ensure the force respects this obligation in the Code of Ethics. It's a work-in-progress," he said.

The SPVM did not respond to CBC News' request for comment in time for publication Wednesday.

He said there have been some improvements among police forces in the province, however. 

The number of filed notices jumped from 187 in 2015 to 296 in 2017 across the province, while Laval police alone sent in 78 notices of possible ethics breaches in 2016-2017.

Commissioner's staff looked into 27 complaints

CBC News has also learned that complaints about the conduct of provincial police officers in Val-d'Or never led to a single disciplinary hearing, despite allegations that some officers paid Indigenous women for sex acts, and drove them far out of town and left them there.

We receive a high number of complaints about Montreal police, so there should be an equal number of notices.- Marc-André  Dowd , police ethics commissioner

The commissioner said there were 37 different files to review, but his staff only looked into 27 of them because 10 women didn't want the matter to go further, or could not be reached. One case has also been suspended, until the criminal case goes through the courts.

The commissioner bases his reviews on existing police investigations, and some staff were also sent to Val-d'Or to investigate the allegations.

Dowd told CBC News he reached a conclusion similar to that of Quebec's Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions.

"For various reasons, I didn't have a reasonable chance of having a breach of the Code of Ethics recognized in front of a disciplinary committee," he said, referring to all the cases he reviewed.

Dowd said in some cases, the police officer could not be identified or the alleged victim was not identified. But most often, the credibility of the complainants was the main factor in deciding whether to forward a complaint to the disciplinary committee for a hearing.

"The person has to be able to give enough information and remember certain elements of the incident and intoxication often interferes with that ability to remember precisely what they experienced," Dowd said.

A lack of evidence doesn't mean the incident didn't occur, however, he said.