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MONTREAL—The first fatal police shooting of the year in Montreal is raising serious questions and criticisms about how the incident is being investigated, the training afforded to police officers in dealing with homeless people, and the amount of services provided for people living on the streets or in transition—especially those with mental health or substance abuse issues.
Farshad Mohammadi, a 34-year-old homeless man who immigrated to Canada from Iran, was shot by a Montreal police officer at the downtown Bonaventure metro station on the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 6. He died en route to hospital.
The investigation into Mohammadi's death has been turned over to the provincial Sureté Québec police force. The SQ is refusing to comment on the investigation, including whether either of the officers involved in the shooting have been interrogated yet.
Preliminary reports are that Mohammadi had been sleeping at the metro station when he was approached by two police officers. It is unclear what happened next, but one of the officers suffered cuts to his face, neck and torso, allegedly from Mohammadi, who was carrying a utility knife. Mohammadi had put his knife back in his pocket and was walking away—ignoring police orders to stop—when the officer who had been cut shot Mohammadi. Eyewitnesses said that Mohammadi was not threatening any others in the metro and appeared calm as he walked towards the metro exit.
Mohammadi is the second homeless Montrealer to be killed by police in the past seven months. Last summer, police shot and killed Mario Hamel, who was cutting open garbage bags with a knife on St-Denis street and allegedly acting aggressively, as well as hospital employee Patrick Limoges, who was killed by a stray bullet when he was biking nearby.
The Howl Arts Collective organized a memorial for Mohammadi in Bonaventure metro, which drew around 100 people and featured speeches, poetry and music.
Critics of police abuse, and several representatives of Montreal's organizations serving the city's street-involved population, have pointed out that Mohammadi's death fits into a disturbing history of unanswered police killings and insufficient resources for the homeless. Front and centre has been the practice of assigning one police force to investigate another.
“The fact that, once again, the police are investigating the police leaves no doubt as to the outcome of this investigation: no charges will be brought against the police officers involved,” Alex Popovic, a spokesperson for the Coalition contre la répression et les abus policiers (CRAP), told the Media Co-op via email.
CRAP has been vocal in its criticisms of police misconduct and the apparent lack of repercussions. They are not alone. French daily La Presse reported that Pierre Gaudreau, coordinator of the Réseau d'aide aux personnes seules et itinérantes de Montréal (RAPSIM), one of the main aid agencies for homeless and street-involved people in Montreal, was outraged to hear that the SQ was handed the investigation.
“[Quebec Public Security Minister Robert] Dutil added insult to injury by once again confiding the investigation to the SQ. We don't assign any credibility to police investigating the police,” Gaudreau told the paper.
Popovic also questioned the fact that police officers involved in shootings often aren't interrogated for several days after the incident, often, he says, due to medical reasons:
“The fact that police officers who fire on someone systematically fall into “nervous shock” allows them the following advantage: they obtain a medical holiday that results in the investigating officers have to take their sickness into account before interrogating the police-shooter.”
All these questions raise concerns about a lack of true independence when police forces investigate each other—especially since the Montreal police investigate the SQ when similar events arise with the provincial force.
Many have pointed to Ontario's Special Investigation Unit (SIU) as an example to follow. The SIU is a civilian oversight body that investigates police abuses, including shootings, and has often been hailed as the premier body of its kind in Canada. Even the SIU has been questioned, though, with the Ontario Ombudsman in December finding that the provincial government has been systematically undermining the body. Last Spring, CTV's W5 broadcast a special report calling the SIU a “toothless tiger.”
Quebec Public Security Minister Dutil introduced Bill 46 in late 2011, which he said would answer concerns about investigations of police. The bill, if passed, would allow for some civilian oversight, but goes nowhere near as far as even the SIU. The investigation of police actions would still be carried out by other police forces, but with an independent civilian body that could also examine the crime scene and read reports. The reports of such investigations will not necessarily be made public. This has led critics to say that the legislation does not go far enough. Dutil has dismissed naysayers, saying that only police officers are sufficiently trained to carry out such investigations.
In the days since his death, details about Mohammadi have surfaced that raise questions beyond how investigations of the police are carried out.
Mohammadi was part of the Kurdish rebellion in Iran before fleeing in fear of his life to Canada. He frequented at least three of Montreal's homeless shelters and was living with both mental health and substance abuse issues, which a friend attributed to coping with the trauma of his past in Iran. Mohammadi had a reputation for being quiet, keeping to himself and at times volunteering at the shelters where he stayed, raising all the more questions about what led to his death. He was also apparently fighting a recent deportation order, following a conviction on break and enter in 2008.
Activists and politicians alike have said they will follow the investigation of Mohammadi's death closely and continue to raise these questions. But with the SQ investigation the SPVM, the question of what really happened that afternoon at Bonaventure metro may never be truly clear.
Tim McSorley is an editor with The Dominion and a member of the Montreal Media Co-op.
An earlier version of this piece appeared on the Montreal Media Co-op website.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.