Why Can’t Montreal Police Stop Killing Homeless People?

Graphic: Nico Holzmann

Every year for the past five we hear the same story: a homeless man brandishes a weapon and gets shot dead by Montreal police officers.

Every time we hear the same kind of justifications.

“The officer involved feared for his life.”

“Studies have shown that a person holding a knife closer than 25 feet can run faster than the time required for an officer to pull out his weapon.”

“The man charged towards the officers who had no other choices but to open fire.”

It happened again last week, when Jimmy Cloutier—a homeless man with mental health problems —was shot and killed by SPVM officers in front of the Old Brewery Mission. He had attacked someone unidentified earlier and then afterwards went for coffee at the Mission. When he came out, police were waiting for him. According to the Bureau des Enquêtes Indépendantes, he pulled out what appeared to be a knife.

According to the police, he refused to drop what they suspected was a knife and charged towards the officers. He was then shot in the torso. He died of his injuries.

Unfortunately, the Old Brewery Mission’s surveillance cameras only captured the moment before the killing. We’ll have to wait after BEI and coroner investigations to know more.

Police are supposedly here to keep the population safe, or so the story goes—and yes, the population includes homeless people and those with mental health problems. This should be its first and foremost priority. Being distraught while holding a weapon in public shouldn’t justify summary execution. Cops should, as they say, put their lives on the line and do the maximum to de-escalate such situations.

But so far, they haven’t done this.

In 2011, Mario Hamel, a homeless man with mental health problems was throwing and stabbing garbages bags in downtown Montreal. After being alerted about it, police arrived and ordered he drop his weapon. Then they pepper sprayed, shot and killed him. The incident also led to the death of nurse Patrick Limoges, who was struck by stray police bullets while on his way to work.

The coroner on the case recommended fielding more tasers and pushed for increased tactical formation when facing violent and distraught individuals.

In 2012 a similar situation occurred. Farshad Mohammadi, a homeless man was in the metro acting aggressively. When the cops intervened, he attacked them with an x-acto knife. His partner managed to stop Mohammadi with his baton. Mohammadi then fled through a staircase, still holding his x-acto knife, when the cops opened fire.

Again the coroner’s report recommended increasing the number of tasers on the field.

In 2014, Alain Magloire, a former biochemist homeless because of chemical psychosis, was brandishing a hammer on Berri St., smashing windows. He was knocked over by a squad car and then shot four times.

On the other side of the pond the story is usually completely different. Bobbies are usually only armed with weapons such as batons, pepper spray and tasers.

We should take a similar approach here. We keep hearing that police using tasers could save lives, but relying on these “less lethal” solutions always creates new problems. Tasers don’t always kill, so they incentivize cops to use them any kind of situations—including interactions with uncooperative people.`

As long as the macho militarized police culture doesn’t change in North America, I cannot trust cops to use tasers responsibly. As long as the SPVM and society in general keep treating homeless people as others—as worthless—this will keep happening.

L’École Nationale de Police du Québec seems to be going in the right direction by introducing more psychosocial and de-escalation formation to their new recruits. But a change in culture takes time, and I speculate that the majority of new recruits get told by their seniors that everything they learned in police academy is bullshit.

When someone is in crisis they are usually frightened. They need space and someone to calmly talk to and listen to their problems. Police need to de-escalate situations, to help people in crisis calm down and drop their weapons.

The Old Brewery Mission is doing this on an almost daily basis, why can’t the police?