Racial profiling

Police shooting of Pierre Coriolan was a needless tragedy

Death is a tragic reminder of the urgent need for mental health training for police officers
Photo: G Morel

Around 7 p.m. on June 26, someone called 911 to report a man destroying objects in his apartment. Shortly after police arrived on the scene, Pierre Coriolan, a 58-year-old black man in the midst of a mental health crisis, was dead.

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Several outlets reported that Coriolan had a habit of speaking to himself, which was reportedly disturbing to others. But his neighbor from across the hall, Raymond [not his real name], found it comforting. “I felt safe knowing that Pierre was walking in front of my apartment,” he said. “I was used to him speaking in front of my door, and this would not wake me up, he made me sleep.”

He remembers his neighbour Pierre fondly, the hockey fan who came to give him the latest game scores, particularly during the playoffs. When Raymond had a “small bout of depression," Pierre came inquiring about his state, worrying about him.

Neighbours who had peered through their doors while the scene was unfolding reported that “it was like an execution.”

He noticed a change in Coriolan since the beginning of proceedings before the Régie du logement, Quebec’s rental board. He seemed very concerned about possibly being evicted from his apartment. Yet, on the floor where he lived, none of his many neighbors would testify against him, save for one person who had moved out earlier in the year. All the others found him to be rather withdrawn, but said they were accustomed to Pierre and that no one had ever been afraid of him.

Pierre Coriolan

“I read the letter which he received on June 3 from the Régie indicating he had 20 days to leave,” said Raymond. Coriolan was counting the days, hoping not to be evicted. On June 24, he seemed happy that the 20-day deadline had passed. “Pierre said it was a good sign that he did not have any news. He said that he thought it was not serious. As the month went by, his hope of staying grew. He never told me about finding another place,” said Raymond.

Then came the fateful day of June 27. One of Coriolan’s sisters met him at noon that day. “He was in great shape and was doing very well. Pierre came to visit [me and my children] driving his own car.” A neighbour also reported that he saw him return home. “I saw him at two o'clock in the afternoon, there was no problem, and he was fine,” he said. What happened in the meantime?

A few hours later, Raymond saw him “throwing his belongings everywhere outside his home.”

“I had never seen him like that. This is when I did the math and I assumed that he had received the call from the manager to tell him that he had to leave in 72 hours. It is the call that made him go off,” he said. The Montreal Federation of Housing Non-Profits (FOHM) reported that their bailiff did not have time to notify the tenant on June 26 or 27, leaving him to find out from the building manager.

The police said ‘Shoot him!’

“The police arrived and not even two minutes later, they immediately used the Taser gun on him,” said Raymond. With all the uproar, Raymond got scared and went to hide in his bathroom. When he heard shots and feared he could be in the line of fire, he went to hide in his closet. From there, he heard “shoot him!” followed by more gunshots, and then complete silence. A few minutes later, police came knocking on his door after seeing a bullet hole in the wall of the hallway, which connects directly to the closet where he was hiding.

Plastered-over bullet hole outside Coriolan's apartment

Neighbours who had peered through their doors while the scene was unfolding reported that “it was like an execution.” A real firing squad. There was a row of police officers pointing their guns at Coriolan. “He was on his knees and wasn’t moving and they shot him,” said one neighbour. Coriolan immediately collapsed to the floor against the exit door. “They didn’t give him a chance.”

One resident, still stunned and in shock from what they had just seen, reports they were told by police to “get inside your home if you don’t want the same thing to happen to you.”

Déjà vu all over again

This death could have been prevented, but we made it inevitable. Coriolan’s case is the perfect example of the failures of the government, whether voluntary or otherwise, not only in fighting against social inequalities, but also in addressing issues related to mental health and, we cannot ignore it, the fight against racism.

Even if history repeats itself, we do not seem to learn from the past. In 2014, following the death of Alain Magloire, the coroner stated that “in a situation where the person has mental problems, one must focus on a verbal de-escalation and toning down approach.” After Farshad Mohammadi’s death in 2012, the coroner declared that “once again, police officers found themselves in the first line of intervention with a person in need of health care and social services rather than a police action.” In 2011, in the case of Mario Hamel and Patrick Limoges, the coroner told the police, about the intervention that lasted less than two minutes, to adopt “softer, less coercive methods” as they aren’t dealing with “an armed criminal with a machine gun.” So many reports and yet still another death.

All these reports recommended that the government improve access to mental health services, because for a person with such issues, the risks of facing the police are greater. It is a recommendation which remains unfulfilled. Each year the Montreal police receive more than 36,000 complaints related to mental health. It seems to me that this is the sign of a society that is in depression and refuses to use the available means to heal itself, a society governed by doctors who prefer to act as accountants and eventually make us sick.

I don't know if Mr. Coriolan might still be alive if he had been white. But I know that his death adds to the statistics that show that being black increases the risk of being killed by a Montreal police officer.

As little as his apartment may have been, it was Coriolan’s most valuable possession. That the Régie came to rob him of his only haven of peace is a sign that the state gives little value to people who own very little. Not even one politician has seen fit to mention his name, not even after the protest that interrupted the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 2.

People also experience mental health crises in nicer neighborhoods than Coriolan’s. However, there are far fewer people in crisis killed by the police in these areas. It is hard not to ask the question: how can a man approaching 60, kneeling on the ground, possibly with a screwdriver in hand, pose such a threat that he has to be shot? It is also hard not to think that Coriolan didn’t stand a chance against the police from the get-go: mental health issues, deficient social status and racial profiling. Racial profiling, because the image of a black man kneeling motionless on the floor was so negative and threatening in the subconscious of all the police officers present, that it seemed normal to shoot him at point-blank range.

Hallway outside Pierre Coriolan's apartment

I don't know if Mr. Coriolan might still be alive if he had been white. But I know that his death adds to the statistics that show that being black increases the risk of being killed by a Montreal police officer. According to data collected by the Coalition Contre la Répression Policière, a coalition against police brutality, 60 people have been killed by Montreal police officers since 1987. Nine of the victims were black, which represents 15 per cent, while black communities represented only 8.4 per cent of the population of Montreal in 2011. This is a fact, not a whim. Another interesting fact is that no SPVM officer has ever been killed by stabbing since we began collecting data in 1971.

The family still wonders about the need for the media to expose Coriolan’s criminal record. Where is the public interest? Does it excuse the actions of the police? If you are black and a victim of police bullets (which I remind you is a greater risk) do not expect to die with dignity. You will be dehumanized. You will only become a criminal in the media, the victim of a media death penalty that will deprive you of any form of sympathy. In the eyes of the media, Coriolan is no more than a black body riddled with bullets, nothing more than a criminal.

Yet, here lies a man. A man who wanted to stand with dignity in his apartment. But it is on his knees, along the corridor of his death, that society killed him.

Editors' note: Raymond is a fictitious name. For fear of reprisal, the neighbors interviewed for this piece prefer to remain anonymous.
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