Montreal Police Convicted
They took it badly, all four of them. Pierre Bergeron, a 41-year-old veteran of 17 years on the Montreal police force, stood transfixed in disbelief for several long moments as he listened to the verdict, then finally sobbed aloud. Michel Vadeboncoeur, 31, collapsed into his seat in the prisoner's box, elbows on his knees, head cradled in his hands. Louis Samson's eyes brimmed with tears as he wrapped a comforting arm around Vadeboncoeur's shaking shoulders. And André Lapointe stared across the brightly lit courtroom at the jurors, desperately searching the faces of the seven men and five women who had deliberated for eight days before rendering a decision on his fate. "Ça se peut pas," Lapointe muttered over and over. "This can't be."
But it was. The jury found Lapointe and his three colleagues, all constables with previously unblemished records in the Montreal Urban Community Police Department, guilty of assault causing bodily harm. They were convicted in connection with the beating of Richard Barnabé, a 39-year-old taxi driver who was left in an apparently irreversible "neuro-vegetative" coma after he was strip-searched and brutally manhandled in a holding cell in a police station in the city's north end on the morning of Dec. 14, 1993. A fifth constable and the only woman charged in the case, 25-year-old Manon Cadotte, was acquitted.
The verdicts handed down last week were grim news, not only for the four convicted police officers. There are wider implications to the affair, reaching beyond the fate that awaits them. They face the likely prospect of a devastating end to their careers, as well as up to 10 years in prison, when they appear before Quebec Superior Court Justice Benjamin Greenberg for sentencing on July 13. But no matter what happens to the policemen, they will leave behind a department that is reeling from a succession of damaging blows that has helped to create the impression of a force perilously close to being out of control. "What has happened around this city in recent months is enough to make any police chief weep," said Jean-Paul Brodeur, director of the International Centre for Comparative Criminology at the Université de Montréal. "It's been a police nightmare."
At the heart of the problem is a series of fatal shootings that occurred while the Montreal force was under the spotlight as a result of the Barnabé case. In March, police shot and killed an emotionally disturbed man, Paolo Romanelli, 23, after he inflicted a superficial wound on an officer with a kitchen knife, then barricaded himself into his east-end apartment. The police rushed into Romanelli's apartment before the arrival of a tactical squad and a negotiator, an action that a coroner's report subsequently criticized as hasty. In late May, a 23-year-old Peruvian-born immigrant, Martin Suazo, was shot in the head on a downtown street after he was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting. Witnesses claimed that the unarmed Suazo was kneeling or lying on the sidewalk, apparently attempting to surrender, when the fatal shot was fired. A preliminary investigation into the incident by the Sureté du Québec, the provincial police force, said that Suazo had been killed accidentally.
Then last week, in another controversial incident, a 67-year-old man, Philippe Ferraro, died after being shot three times by rubber bullets fired at close range by a member of the Montreal force's tactical unit. He had thrown an 18-inch cement pick at the swat team, which was attempting to persuade him to surrender after they were called to his home by his sister, who said he had threatened her and killed her four cats. That incident was broadcast live on television. Initially, there had been speculation that Ferraro, who had a cardiac condition, died of a heart attack. But a preliminary autopsy found that one of the three rubber bullets penetrated a lung and damaged his heart. "This man had a history of cardiac problems, but that's not what killed him," said coroner François Houle. "A rubber bullet did."
For Montreal's beleaguered police force, the timing could not have been more unfortunate. Ferraro's death came on the same day the four constables were convicted in the Barnabé case, a beating that left the Montreal cabbie with a fractured skull, a broken nose, two ribs that had been snapped off at his spine and a partially liquified brain. Criminologist Brodeur, who has served on two of the most recent of several public inquiries into the Montreal force's often-criticized conduct, as well as teaching occasionally at Quebec's police academy, claimed to see a "common thread" in all the incidents. "There is a sense of urgency, a demand for a swift emergency response, in all police procedures that I think is basically wrong," he said. "Often, it's better to wait. That was certainly true in the case of Barnabé and with Romanelli, too. Police forces in Quebec, all police forces, need to rid themselves of what I can only describe as a macho attitude. They need to learn how to hasten slowly."
It is advice that the Montreal force may well be hearing again soon. Quebec's Public Security Minister Serge Ménard had already agreed to set up inquiries into police conduct in both the Romanelli and Suazo cases. And late last week, in the wake of the Barnabé convictions, he indicated that he was contemplating other measures, including the creation this summer of a special committee that would examine police procedures and recommend ways to strengthen surveillance of what happens in police patrol cars, interrogation rooms and holding cells.
At the same time, Ménard also appointed a new director for the police academy in Nicolet, setting a precedent by picking a woman for the job. He named Louise Gagnon-Gaudreau, a 47-year-old junior college professor. Gagnon-Gaudreau immediately suggested that the time might have arrived to implement psychological testing to screen all future police officers, weeding out potential troublemakers early in the training process. "It's difficult," she said, "but it's also clear that we have to try to find tests to oust those who are psychologically unsuited for the job."
No matter what the future reforms, however, it is all too late for Richard Barnabé. The taxi driver is not expected ever to emerge from the coma he fell into 18 months ago as a result of the beating. The incident began at 3:45 a.m. when he broke a church window, apparently in frustration at being denied visiting rights to see his son during the Christmas holidays. He led police on a wild car chase through the suburbs until he was finally arrested outside the home of his brother, himself a Montreal policeman, and dragged off to be beaten. The lawyers who represented the four constables convicted of the crime last week said that they may appeal. But in the meantime, Barnabé's sister, Claudette, saw reason for some satisfaction. "Citizens are sick and tired of police brutality," she said. "If there are permanent changes, then what happened to my brother may not have been in vain." Others, including no doubt some members of the Montreal force itself, would heartily endorse that view.
Maclean's July 10, 1995