Although the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) has an entire department dedicated to public and media relations, the Montreal police has been accused of suppressing the public’s access to information.
On February 27, La Presse released a video depicting Agent Daniel Lacoursière, a member of the SPVM’s media relations team, violently blocking one of the newspaper’s cameramen from filming a protest.
“I’m not going to talk precisely about the particular case [of Agent Lacoursière],” said SPVM Sergeant Laurent Gingras in a phone interview with The Daily, “but I can tell you that if members of the public are not satisfied with the service they’ve had or want to complain about brutality, they can complain to the police ethics commission; every officer has to answer to the ethics commission.”
Some argue, however, that the problem with the SPVM’s public relations is not what it blocks from the public eye, but the way that it spins the information that it lets through.
Alexandre Popovic, member of the Coalition against Repression and Abuse by Police (CRAP), told The Daily in French: “When someone dies as a result of the action of the SPVM, the public relations team will spread the ‘police version’ of the story, which is, obviously, always the version that will exonerate the police officer from any guilt.”
The SPVM’s most potent public relations tool is its Twitter account, which boasts almost 53,000 followers and over 10,000 tweets. The SPVM told The Daily that there are “several people who tweet” on the account, but it is primarily run by Melissa Carroll, a civilian police officer.
In a blog interview published in 2011, a year after she assumed the post, Carroll described working for the SPVM as her “dream job.”
“I think that my continued presence and interactions with people have helped to establish a trusting relationship and to show that we’re the source of information to know everything about the SPVM,” she told the blogger.
Neither Carroll nor the SPVM responded to The Daily’s repeated requests for an interview with her.
While the SPVM is not the only police force that tweets, it is arguably the most active and, often, the most controversial. Carroll and the others who tweet under the @SPVM handle actively interact with Montrealers, sometimes leading to real-time debates on the twitterstreams.
When an activist media association tweeted that the SPVM was conducting searches in buses and the metro during the two-day demonstration against this year’s Summit on Higher Education, @SPVM tweeted back within ten minutes, denying the accussation and causing other tweeters to chime in claiming that eyewitness accounts supported the original charge.
In a strange twist, since the SPVM is such a reliable presence at any protest action in the city, its hyperactive Twitter feed has become a useful resource for tracking protests in real-time and for late-coming activists looking to get in on the action.
CRAP’s Popovic admitted to having used the police force’s Twitter for the purpose of finding a protest when he was running late.
“The information they tweet is pretty precise, I’ll grant them that,” he said. “It’s a bit of a paradox [to be using the SPVM’s Twitter in that way], but yeah, I have to give them that.”
Tweeting certainly allows the SPVM to interact with the public more directly than ever before, and could also push the police force more accountable for its actions.
In the 2011 blog interview, Carroll said that in the beginning some Montreal police officers were “hesitant about going ahead with [the SPVM’s Twitter, because] they didn’t understand what the benefit for a public service could be,” although she reports that they’re now “very happy” with it.
“We think we are being transparent [with Twitter],” said Agent Lacoursière. “We use it to inform the public generally, like about what route a protest will take and if it is declared illegal,” he said.
If the SPVM’s Twitter were used only in this way, Popovic thinks that it would be a good initiative. But he argues that even though Twitter seems to make the police force more accountable, it’s nonetheless used to manipulate public opinion in favour of the police.
“I’m for more transparency,” he said. “If the SPVM were only tweeting neutral information, like where a protest is, I couldn’t be against it. The thing is that the SPVM also uses Twitter to justify its interventions as they’re happening, like claiming they’re intervening in a protest because protesters are throwing projectiles, or in other similar situations.”