Following recommendations made by a coroner’s inquest jury in the 2015 death of Michel Vienneau, a University of New Brunswick (UNB) professor says vetting of anonymous tips to police needs to be at the forefront when deciding how to respond to calls.
“What it speaks to is the need to thoroughly vet those tips and to consider operationally whether or not it is warranted to act on it so quickly if you don’t have time to properly vet it, plan it and execute it,” said Mary Ann Campbell, the director of criminal justice studies at UNB.
The five-member coroner’s jury released its recommendations Thursday following an investigation into the police-involved killing of Michel Vienneau on Jan. 12, 2015.
Vienneau was shot and killed by Bathurst, N.B., police after they responded to an erroneous Crime Stoppers tip suggesting the 51-year-old businessman and his wife were smuggling drugs into the province.
As the plainclothes police officers confronted the couple at the Bathurst train station, one officer was pinned between the couple’s vehicle and a snowbank. Vienneau – who wasn’t involved in any criminal activity – was shot in the heart and lungs.
The coroner’s jury recommended police always have a single person responsible for accessing Crime Stoppers information, including on weekends, so that intelligence is shared as quickly as possible.
Jurors said unmarked police cars should be inspected regularly and flashing lights on those vehicles should be standardized and clearly visible.
A patrol car with a police officer in uniform should be part of an intervention, they said, adding that plainclothes officers should wear outer clothing that clearly identifies them as police.
Campbell says she’s “not surprised” with the recommendations because “the issue of police identification has been a salient issue in these matters once the investigation started to unfold.”
The case is a “difficult one,” she said, due to the erroneous tip, but it’s never a “black and white” situation.
“It really depends on the fluidity of the situation, the nature of the issues, the parties involved,” Campbell said, “which means you need to take the time to plan in order to do that safely for all involved.”
Meanwhile, Greg Marquis, a criminal justice and policing historian, says a jury of laypersons — people who aren’t experts — is “the strength and the weakness of these coroner’s juries.”
Police association responds
The New Brunswick Police Association says inquest reviews are always welcome. It agrees tips should be investigated, but timely tips can be very challenging.
“Say for example there’s a tip that comes in that something’s happening and you got to respond to that within minutes,” said Bob Davidson, the association’s executive director. “To try to check that out before you respond to it would be physically impossible.”
“It’s better to err on the side of responding to it to try to avoid a criminal act or criminal activity than to ignore it until you get time to check all the aspects of it,” he said.
Having one person responsible for Crime Stoppers tips is an “ideal situation,” but one that depends on resources, he said.
“In these times where police budgets are being cut, ideal situations are now being sacrificed for dollars,” Davidson said. He hopes each of the nine municipal police forces in the province do have those resources.
He agrees with the recommendations to regularly inspect unmarked cruisers.
“That’s something that we understood is going on, but if not, it should be,” he said, adding that every police investigation and encounter is different.
“Naturally, we try to strive for ideal conditions, however, in the real world, sometimes ideal situations don’t present themselves,” he said.
However, Davidson says the average person likely wouldn’t realize if flashing lights on an unmarked car met a certain standard or not.
Officers cleared of wrongdoing
In December 2019, a New Brunswick arbitrator determined that constables Mathieu Boudreau and Patrick Bulger had not violated code of conduct rules when the plainclothes officers approached Vienneau’s car.
Arbitrator Joel Michaud found that Bulger had properly identified himself when he got out of his police vehicle and Boudreau showed himself “both in the way he was dressed and in the way he acted” to be a police officer before the shooting started.
Boudreau and Bulger were initially charged with manslaughter, assault with a weapon and unlawfully pointing a firearm, but Judge Anne Dugas-Horsman ruled in February 2017 that the prosecution had failed to produce enough evidence to warrant a trial.
A coroner’s inquest is a formal court proceeding that allows for the public presentation of all evidence relating to a death. It does not make any finding of legal responsibility or assign blame. Recommendations are intended to help prevent future deaths under similar circumstances.
Police force to examine recommendations
In a brief statement to Global News Friday, the Bathurst Police Force says it is aware of the jury recommendations made in the case.
“We will examine the recommendations carefully in order to implement the necessary adjustments,” the statement from Luc Foulem, a city spokesperson, said.
“There will be no further comment at this time.”
— With files from The Canadian Press