Cops to testify first in Villanueva inquest

Community concerned that case will not address racial profiling by police

The coroner’s inquest into the shooting death of Fredy Villanueva by Montreal police officer Jean-Loup Lapointe is slated to begin this October, now that the Villanueva family has been able to procure legal representation.

The 18-year-old was killed in Montreal North when an argument broke out between a group of youth and Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) officers in August of 2008.

The inquest was delayed last May after the Villanuevas and affiliated parties could not pay their legal fees. The government of Quebec has now paid for the Villanuevas’ lawyers, after having provided legal representation only for the police officers involved.

A recent victory for the family’s lawyers involved a switch in the order of testimony, with the police tentatively slated to testify first, and the youth witnesses to testify second.

“It’s a good thing [the police officers] are testifying first because they’ve never given their version of the story before,” said John Philpop, a lawyer for the Villanuevas. “[The police officers] won’t have a chance to adjust their story based on the testimony [of the youth witnesses].”

Philpop said that while it is still not guaranteed that the police officers will testify first at the hearing in October, if the new order of testimonies is accepted, it would go a long way in determining “whether [the shooting] was self-defense or criminal.”

In spite of this victory for the Villanueva camp, many people, particularly the Montreal North community, are worried that the inquest will not confront the overarching problems behind the Villanueva shooting – namely, the issue of racial profiling.

“The restricted mandate of this type of investigation allows neither a true study of the socio-economic conditions of the population nor an equitable representation of the victims of the police force,” said the Montreal North newspaper Republik in a statement released in May.

“The investigation…aims to wash the police officers of any suspicion, and is unaware of the fundamental causes of the social strain in Montreal North.”

Republik called for an investigation into larger causes of police repression in the Montreal North community, and the sentiment has continued to grow in the year since Villanueva’s death.

SPVM policy prohibits the police force from making public comments before the inquiry.

Philpop emphasized that the investigation will not be held as a criminal trial.

“People are concerned about not having a court that deals with profiling…. The problem with the relationship between police and minorities is important,” said Philpop.

“Police treat blacks differently. I never get pulled over…. They don’t touch me because I’m white.”

The government of Quebec intends to address some of the community’s grievances by holding a separate inquiry into racial profiling. Quebec’s Human Rights Commission announced last week that it would hold public hearings within the year, which will offer young Quebeckers from minority groups an opportunity to share their experiences of discrimination.

“The issue of discrimination seems to be present in many aspects of public life…beyond the police,” Francois Larsen, the commission’s director of research and education, told the CBC on Thursday.

But regardless of whether the Villanueva inquest will address the racial tensions of the Montreal North community, Philpop said that the case will highlight the consequences of racial profiling within the police force.

“Hopefully it will set a political precedent…. [This case] is going to be an example, ” he said.

— With files from Niko Block