Quebec has suspended the Montreal police chief and put an interim leader in charge after a government report described botched investigations, favouritism and cover-ups of police wrongdoing that put the integrity of the force at risk.
Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux said Chief Philippe Pichet has failed to get control of turmoil and corruption in the police force, and that the head of the Sûreté du Québec, Martin Prud'homme, will step in and start the housecleaning while a new chief is found.
"The report is devastating," Mr. Coiteux said of the 96-page report delivered by Michel Bouchard, a former Crown prosecutor and deputy minister of justice who spent nine months investigating Montreal police practices.
"Within internal investigations there was a serious lack of seriousness, of follow-up. The law was not appropriately considered, they were not reporting cases of serious allegations [to prosecutors], there were cases where people got special treatment," Mr. Coiteux said. "A series of things led to the conclusion we have a systemic and very serious problem needing drastic changes."
The report released on Wednesday said senior officers in the internal affairs division intervened to bury criminal investigations into the conduct of colleagues. "Several investigations were botched and vital information was deliberately omitted to prevent certain officers from being prosecuted or disciplined," a summary said.
"We believe there exists within the Montreal police a situation that puts its good functioning in peril," Mr. Bouchard wrote in his report. "The situation requires an intervention that is equal to the problems that must be confronted."
The report added that Chief Pichet did not demonstrate "a strong will to change the dynamic."
Mr. Bouchard described about 20 cases that were mishandled, including a sexual-assault allegation against a promising investigator. Senior managers wanted to "above all, avoid slowing down his promotion," the report said.
In another case, a senior officer demanded to see the investigative plan of an internal affairs official looking into allegations of misconduct against a police manager. When the investigator questioned his suspect, it became clear the senior official had passed along the questions in the plan.
Mr. Bouchard also detailed a long-standing feud between les bleus (patrol officers) and investigators, who patrollers believe give preferential treatment to their own.
Mr. Prud'homme will have a one-year mandate and then return to the SQ, Mr. Coiteux said.
Montreal's new mayor, Valérie Plante, said the city will immediately begin searching for a chief who will have a new vision for the department. "The police force has a crisis of confidence," she said, "a crisis rooted in a lack of transparency."
Ms. Plante added that Chief Pichet was suspended because of the need to act quickly, and that she will talk to him about his future soon.
Chief Pichet, who had been in the job for 27 months, suspended a number of senior officers, often in response to media reports of wrongdoing. He presented a clean-up plan to Mr. Coiteux, who named a team of outside investigators to probe criminal misconduct in the force.
Mr. Coiteux also appointed Mr. Bouchard to lead the administrative investigation last March.
Provincial opposition members had demanded the police force be put under trusteeship and civilian watch to ensure a clean slate.
"It's the worst scenario," said Pascal Bérubé, the Parti Québécois public-security critic. "He's not a civilian, they've left things unstable with Mr. Pichet's future and they destabilize the SQ's leadership.
"And there's a permanent rivalry between the SQ and the Montreal police," he added, pointing to an unprecedented raid by the SQ on Montreal police headquarters in October as part of the investigation of alleged wrongdoing in the force. "This is history, not a myth."
Mr. Coiteux explained that he put the SQ chief in charge to allow quick action and to ensure the force had an interim boss who did not aspire to the permanent position. Mr. Coiteux also announced he extended Mr. Prud'homme's mandate at the SQ until 2022 to ensure he can conduct his one-year housecleaning in Montreal with assurance he has a job afterward.
Media reports last fall and winter detailed allegations of wrongdoing at the Montreal police.
Newspapers obtained 2015 recordings of mob lawyer Loris Cavaliere telling clients he pays police officers to stay away from them. Yves Francoeur, head of the police union, alleged officers were conspiring to undermine Chief Pichet. Two former officers said the internal affairs department fabricated evidence and pretended to launch internal investigations to intimidate officers and to cover up wrongdoing.
Last fall, the police force was accused of abusing press freedom by obtaining the phone records of La Presse journalist Patrick Lagacé along with authorization to track him as it investigated a police officer suspected of leaking information.
The case and several others triggered a public inquiry and pushed Ottawa to pass a law to bolster protection of journalists' sources from police.