Hanes: There’s a new sheriff in town, but he’s not the next Montreal police chief

Martin Prud’homme — the former head of the Sûreté du Québec who served one year as Montreal’s interim police chief — is back, but not in the role you might expect.

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No, Montreal didn’t name a new chief of police on Wednesday to replace Sylvain Caron, who took early retirement last month.

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But Mayor Valérie Plante did announce that Montreal has hired one of its former police chiefs to be in charge of urban security at city hall.

Martin Prud’homme, who retired last year as the head of the Sûreté du Québec (after a strange saga that we’ll get to in a moment), served one year as Montreal’s interim top cop, from 2017 to 2018. He was parachuted in by the Quebec government to clean up a department plagued by scandal and internal strife.

Now Prud’homme is back — but not in the position one might expect, given the big vacancy at the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal. He’s been appointed to a newly created role in the city bureaucracy: deputy director general of public security and compliance, which makes him the senior civil servant in charge of police, the fire department, legal services and clerks.

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In his new capacity, Prud’homme will not manage the day-to-day operations of the SPVM, but rather play an administrative role overseeing security and legal matters within the city. So there’s a new sheriff in town, but he’s not the next chief of the SPVM.

One of Prud’homme’s first jobs will in fact be to help set up the process to select Montreal’s next police chief, which the city announced it has paused to allow for public consultations. This unprecedented step will give stakeholders and community groups input on the qualifications the next top cop needs at a time when the job and the SPVM’s direction are in flux.

Prud’homme certainly had a hand in choosing Montreal’s last chief of police. When he completed his one-year mandate in late 2018, Caron was one of only two candidates Prud’homme recommended as a replacement. (The other was Line Carbonneau, formerly of the RCMP.) Prud’homme was adamant that the new boss be an outsider to avoid a resurgence of the clan warfare he had just quelled within the SPVM.

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But a lot has changed, even in just 3 1/2 years. Prud’homme returns to Montreal at a time when policing is rapidly evolving and the city faces new challenges. A rise in gun crime and a spike in youth violence have made Montrealers feel unsafe. Meanwhile, longtime grievances about racial profiling have amplified calls for the SPVM to shift more resources to community policing and prevention programs. This bifurcation of the role of the police will be one of the main challenges for the next chief.

Reshaping the hiring process is evidence of Plante’s commitment to this transformation. The establishment of a deputy director general in charge of urban security is her signal to the city plans to take a stronger role in holding the SPVM to account. Now Prud’homme is here to make sure the next chief makes that happen — scrutiny he did not have himself when he held the post.

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Prud’homme also has experience within government bureaucracy, having served as Quebec’s deputy minister of public security. But he has spent much of his career at the SQ. And it was there that his career took a twist during one of the stranger political dramas of recent years.

After he exchanged his blues for his khakis again, Prud’homme was suspended as chief of the SQ in 2019 due to an awkward call he made to Quebec’s then-chief prosecutor more than a year earlier.

At the time, Quebec’s Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes was probing a series of internal leaks that had long been undermining investigations by the Unité permanent anticorruption (UPAC). Former SQ officer and independent MNA Guy Ouellette, one of Prud’homme’s friends, had been arrested on suspicion of being the source, but was never charged. Prud’homme’s father-in-law, Robert Lafrenière, was the head of UPAC during the leaks.

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Prud’homme was cleared of any wrongdoing, but he was the subject of a complaint by Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault. After he took legal action, the grievance was dropped in exchange for Prud’homme retiring.

This water under the bridge makes Prud’homme’s return to Montreal all the more triumphant. Guilbault refused to comment on his new position on Wednesday.

Now Prud’homme’s focus is making Montreal “one of the safest cities in North America.”

But again, Prud’homme is not Montreal’s next chief of police. He’s just going to be working very, very closely with that person.

However, Montrealers are left to wonder if the SPVM did in fact just get a new boss — even if he has a different title.

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