Quebec government has left courthouses unsafe, special constables claim in lawsuit

A Quebec City court will begin hearing a number of hair-raising stories Monday about the state of security in courthouses across the province.

The hearing is happening less than a week after a special constable at the Maniwaki, Que., courthouse shot an 18-year-old defendant during a confrontation caught on cellphone video.

As of Sunday afternoon, the male teen remained in a partial coma at a hospital in Gatineau, Que.

Special constables — who are charged by law with the responsibility of protecting court buildings and everyone who enters them — launched the lawsuit last summer.

Their union and several constables are suing the province, alleging cuts motivated by budget concerns have made courthouses and those who visit less safe.

They also allege the government has broken a legal commitment to secure and protect the public in those facilities. 

'We warned the province'

"We warned the province," said Franck Perales, president of the Syndicat des constables spéciaux du gouvernement du Québec, noting the union had long been concerned an incident, such as the Maniwaki shooting, was just a matter of time.

Perales is named as one of the plaintiffs in the suit, which details harrowing stories of judges fleeing courtrooms in the middle of trials and private security guards neither trained nor equipped to step in.

One story in the suit concerns an incident at a youth court at the Palais de Justice in Valleyfield, Que., just west of Montreal.

In spring 2016, the suit claims, a distraught father lunged from the witness box toward the judge, forcing him to flee the courtroom for his own safety.

An unarmed private security guard who'd been charged with protecting the judge, as well as court employees and members of the audience, remained seated during the entire episode, the suit alleges. 

In a 2015 incident detailed in the suit, a judge at the Mont-Laurier, Que., courthouse halted a trial after a security guard failed to intervene during an outburst — and refused to resume until a special constable was assigned to the court.

Judges refuse to sit without armed constables

The suit includes a number of similar incidents involving judges who have put their foot down, concerned over the degree of safety offered by a private security guard.

The suit includes analysis showing the province is increasingly relying on private security, as a cost-saving measure — with private security guards sometimes outnumbering the special constables on duty.

Private security guards are armed only with a radio, the suit alleges, compared to special constables who are issued a firearm and a baton. The special constables also have the powers to make arrests, and have gone through training at the provincial police academy in Nicolet, Que.

The suit also describes how special constables are often forced to leave the protection of the entire courthouse to unarmed guards, while they watch over defendants or make arrests.

In one incident from the spring of 2016 in Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, Que., a special constable had to lock up four people while arresting a fifth person at the same time.

Alone to handle five people without the help of a correctional officer, nor the keys to cells, the special constable used his own handcuffs to lock the cell door. 

Maniwaki now double staffed

The timing of Monday's hearing is not lost on Perales. 

In Maniwaki, the special constable now being investigated by Quebec's police watchdog was working alone, and can be seen on cellphone video asking unarmed security guards to call for police to help. 

​Perales said that in the wake of the shooting, the provincial government has now staffed the Maniwaki courthouse with two special constables, and has increased staffing elsewhere, too.

But he warned that there would be another tragic event in the future if the province didn't take the issues presented in the suit seriously and introduce a long-term fix.

Quebec's Ministry of Public Security did not reply to requests for information about the new staffing measures.

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Quebec government has left courthouses unsafe, special constables claim in lawsuit