In From the Cold

SPVM Still Ill-Equipped to Deal with Homeless

Photo Brandon Johnston

A homeless man wearing a long gray T-shirt and jeans torn below the knees stands in the piercing cold as an SPVM officer warns him, “If I get another call about you, I’ll tie you to a pole for an hour. I swear.

“Look at me in the eyes. I swear. I swear, I’ll tie you to a pole,” he says, wagging his finger.

The man remains unresponsive.

Then the person behind the camera speaks up.

“Do you know that’s a threat you have no right to make, sir?”

“Back up, please,” the officer says to the man filming.

By now, you’ve probably seen the video captured outside Jean-Talon metro station.

Published on YouTube on Jan. 2, it has already been viewed over 400,000 times. Not surprisingly, it’s elicited a wave of criticism, including a few tweets from on high, the Montreal mayor’s office.

But many have tempered their criticism by underlining the difficulty of intervening in situations like these, often involving people with mental health issues, substance abuse problems or both. Others have gone as far as to say that dealing with homelessness shouldn’t be the police’s problem.

“Police officers are not social workers, and they have other things to do than to get someone to smarten-up and dress up,” said a letter in the Montreal Gazette on Jan. 4 (as if getting off the street was simply a matter of “smartening up”).

Homelessness and its concomitant problems are by no means the police’s responsibility alone, but if this incident proves anything, it’s that the police are still ill-equipped to deal with these issues.

As a side note: homelessness and mental illness are clearly not one and the same problem, but they are closely entwined. According to a 2008 provincial study on homelessness, an estimated 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the homeless in Quebec have mental health problems and 10 per cent suffer from “severe and persistent mental illness.”

The YouTube video comes at an unfortunate time for the SPVM. It was posted days after the police force announced the creation of a special team composed of one regular officer and a social worker to patrol neighbourhoods and help homeless people out of the cold.

The SPVM received four calls about the man causing a disturbance at Jean-Talon before the incident. Where was this team when it was needed?

It’s hard to say how many 911 calls involve homeless people, but, according to SPVM Commander Ian Lafrenière, 10,000 to 30,000 per year involve individuals with mental health issues.

“It’s a situation that’s perfectly impossible to handle by ourselves. We need the help of other partners,” he said.

To illustrate the trickiness of intervening in these sorts of emergencies, Lafrenière described another incident that occurred last Friday but wasn’t caught on camera. Police officers responded to a 911 call about a homeless man who had been expelled from Place-des-Arts metro station.

After negotiating with him for half an hour, the police convinced him to follow them out of the station. When they stepped outside, he showed the officers that he was concealing two knives and said that he had been ready to kill himself, or draw a knife on them and commit “suicide by cop.”

With regards to the recent YouTube video, Lafrenière told the Gazette that the officer’s actions were “unacceptable and unexplainable.” On Friday, the policeman had a meeting with his commanding officers and is facing sanctions, the details of which can’t be disclosed for legal reasons.

Well, that’s a little unsatisfying. It would be nice to be sure that the SPVM is taking this matter seriously and following up with appropriate action, but without further information it’s impossible to know.

It’s important to note that the officer in question was said to have a good record and that he had tried to bring the homeless man to a shelter, before threatening to tie him to a post in the bitter cold, like a dog on a leash.

While it may very well have been an empty threat, an unfortunate slip of the tongue, it’s inexcusable coming from an officer of the law.

More important than the sanctions are the precautions the SPVM should be taking to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. By all appearances, homelessness in Quebec is a growing problem.

“Though initially limited to urban Montreal, homelessness has now spread to a number of Quebec’s regions,” reads the province’s report from 2008. “And those who work with the homeless have come to the unsettling conclusion that the phenomenon is growing, diversifying and becoming increasingly complex.”

The same study found that resources for the homeless in Montreal, such as shelters, are becoming increasingly stretched.

It’s easy to see where this is heading. As more and more people fall through the cracks, confrontations like the one recorded outside Jean-Talon will become more frequent. It’s a serious public security issue that the SPVM needs to be ready for.

But it’s a burden that we should all share. It’s commonly said that you can judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable. It’s about time we bring our most needy in from the cold.