Police unions are best known for creating distance. They carve out space between police officers and accountability. They widen the gap between fiction and reality. They often act like the loudmouthed relative with the missing brain/mouth filter you always hope won’t insert themselves into discussions about current events.
On rare, rare occasions, they come across misconduct even they can’t condone. Every so often, police union heads act like normal, decent human beings.
The head of the Montreal police union said police Chief Philippe Pichet should be fired for allowing his officers to spy on journalists, calling the decision to track the cellphones of La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé and at least three other reporters “unforgivable.”
“It was a serious error in judgment and it is unforgivable,” Yves Francoeur, head of La Fraternité des policiers et policières de Montréal told the Montreal Gazette Tuesday. “The SPVM is the second largest police service in Quebec and the fifth largest municipal force in North America, so we need a strong leader.”
The Montreal Police obtained 24 search warrants to surveil Lagacé, including one that allowed the surreptitious activation of his phone’s GPS. At least three other journalists were subjected to the same scrutiny.
The union head pointed out that Chief Pichet was well aware existing laws made surveillance of journalists something to be done only as a last resort in the most serious cases of criminal activity. The Montreal Police, however, began surveilling Lagacé because it was trying to determine who was leaking information from an internal corruption investigation.
In the effort to protect the department from damaging revelations, the Montreal Police chief has managed to push the police union into coming down on the same side as many of its usual enemies: journalists, privacy activists, and civil rights groups.
Even in the midst of all this pushback, Chief Pichet believes the surveillance was justified because his department has a “responsibility to investigate all crimes involving officers.” Apparently, this includes tracking journalists because they may have talked to police officers.
It’s unknown why the warrants were approved by a judge, considering the protections members of the press are usually afforded. The warrants are due to be released later in November. Privacy Lab’s Christopher Parsons suggests the answer may lie in a cyberbullying law that creates a brand new set of law enforcement loopholes. The law permits police to “track an object, person, or transmission of data if the authorities have the suspicion or belief that doing so could assist an investigation.” But it’s not solely limited to cyberbullying, which was how the bill was packaged. (h/t Reason)
Parsons said that Bill C-13 was “sold to the Canadian public as necessary to stop cyberbullying,” but applies to the general public.
“These orders that were used to conduct surveillance on the journalist and his respective sources, those are all powers that can be used in ongoing investigations, so most Canadian citizens will be subject to them,” he said.
How handy to have a law like this to exploit to search out journalists’ sources. The release of warrants should clear up the legal authority apparently abused here. C-13 is abuse waiting to happen, so it’s likely this broadly-written law is the culprit. If so, nothing really stands in the way of law enforcement surveilling those normally meant to be shielded by Canada’s Constitutional protections.