Montreal is in the middle of a bloody gang war and city police chief Marc Parent is desperately trying to hold on to federal funding for what he describes as a vital tool for fighting organized crime.
While the Charbonneau inquiry has grabbed all the attention by exposing corruption at city hall, nearly two dozen Montreal-area gangsters have been shot, and 20 of them have died, in the past 13 months. Mob hits accounted for at least 18 of Montreal’s 35 homicides in 2012. Three low-level players have fallen in the past week alone, and two of them have died.
It’s a grand underworld shakeout and complicated territory grab that even has the city’s head law-enforcement officer uncertain about who is winning and losing.
Amid this turmoil, funding from Ottawa is scheduled to run out on the Eclipse squad, a 46-person unit set up to put pressure on the street-level drug and protection rackets that fuel the mobsters and motorcycle gangs that run much of the crime in the city. The money is part of a $400-million fund Ottawa brought in five years ago to put cops on Canadian streets.
The city is in the middle of a war, and a lot of the people dying are the enemies of Vito Rizzuto (the Mob godfather who returned to the city last year from a U.S. prison, after the murders of his son and father.) Is Vito Rizzuto winning?
It’s the confluence of several things, but there’s certainly an instability in the milieu. We can certainly assume The return of Vito into the picture of Montreal has brought with it a certain amount of movement. We’ve also seen in the past year a kind of fight over territory and market. There are a number of theories. There are journalists, critics, experts, who have put forward their theories, and they’re plausible. There is territory being taken, there is payback. These people do not forget easily.
What’s the role of the Eclipse squad in this? Wasn’t it set up to fight street gangs?
Street gangs are no longer divided from biker gangs and the Mob. The young men who are on the street are now more involved strategically. When things like [the Mob war] happen, what’s important is to be present and visible. Our Eclipse squad has a strong understanding of what’s going on. They had a big role cracking down on the firebombings we had last year. We put a lot of pressure on cafés and other places where there is constant payback. They have an enormous impact. Just last year they made 500 arrests, they seized 40-some guns. They’re destabilizing organized crime.
Are you confident the federal government will provide the money to keep Eclipse going?
What’s going on in Montreal should be equally troubling to the provincial and federal government. But I think the federal government is still listening. We’re talking.
One of the most startling aspects of the Charbonneau commission is how corruption flourished at city hall for years without any questions being asked by anyone in authority, including your police force. Where was the Montreal police while this was going on?
There were corruption investigations conducted at the provincial level in the 2000s. Elected officials went to jail, and Montreal police contributed. But there are a number of factors that have led to new levels of attention. You have to keep in mind that these things are cyclical, and have taken on added importance recently with the Charbonneau commission. People understand now how much attention and resources are needed. I was reading an old document from the early 1900s that talked about the same thing going on then. All it takes is three or four corrupt people in a huge organization to trigger a deeper problem. Then a culture takes hold that is difficult to root out.
You and Mayor Michael Applebaum recently announced a new unit to keep an eye on city hall contracts. We’ve heard at the Charbonneau inquiry how the system of bribes and collusion fell apart when the province set up its anti-corruption squad. In some ways aren’t you setting up to solve the last problem instead of the next one?
I don’t think we’ll lack for work. The city of Montreal awards $1.4-billion in contracts. There are a lot of things to keep an eye on.
Your officers were severely tested last year, between student protests, a gang war and one of the strangest international manhunts in history with the arrest and murder charges laid against Luka Magnotta. Are you suffering any consequences?
We had about 70 officers injured in about 700 demonstrations last year. We really worked on techniques to prevent injury and stress. We were monitoring our people in the field very intensively. I can’t say we’ve had any serious consequences, there’s been no uptick in stress leave.
But you did have two high-profile cases where officers were clearly severely stressed, including Ian Davidson (an intelligence officer who committed suicide after being uncovered as a mob mole) and Stephanie Trudeau (who was suspended after several high-profile altercations linked to the student protests).
Behaviour like that hurts our pride. People get angry. That kind of situation can discredit an entire organization where people are working hard, day after day. It hurts our legitimacy. You start eroding that, you’re constantly facing questions. When you lose respect of the people it’s extremely difficult.
If 2012 was the year of the protest and the year of corruption, what will define 2013?
We are going to be paying attention to organized crime, to violence. There’s also a summit on higher education Feb. 22, and we’ll be watching that closely for protest. We’ve refined our techniques and we’ll be working hard to build links with youth, but we will be prepared to make whatever surgical interventionswe need to. We’re certainly ready. Police forces from around the world come now to learn about our techniques for crowd control. And for good reason.
We now have 2,500 officers who are crowd-control specialists.