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Montreal's New Robbery-Homicide Unit Proving Successful

MONTREAL, CANADA (CP) -- The man in the red Ferrari jacket had been arrested as an accomplice in the killing of a Montreal police officer. The case was closed. But that jacket nagged at one of the members of the new robbery-homicide squad.

"Who the hell is this guy -- I've seen that red jacket before," Cmdr. Andre Bouchard remembers the case analyst saying.

A database check quickly revealed the man was known for more than flashy clothes.

"Four armed robberies in Montreal and seven in Toronto," is what Bouchard said the analyst found.

"He's in for a long time."

The merging of the old robbery and homicide sections into one unit under the Montreal force's major crimes division is an innovative measure that has helped the city ditch its old title as the armed robbery capital of Canada.

It's given detectives the chance to bear down on organized crime and make pioneering efforts such as putting all cases on more accessible computer discs instead of being piled into boxes needing to be dragged into court.

While other Canadian police forces have major crimes divisions, Montreal is believed to be the only one with a combined robbery-homicide unit. Other police forces, such as Laval, just north of Montreal, are checking it out to consider adapting it to their own force.

The best known robbery-homicide division belongs to the Los Angeles Police Department and it has been immortalized in such TV shows as Dragnet. It has handled such high-profile investigations as the gruesome Manson family murders, the O.J. Simpson case and the killing of rapper Notorious B.I.G. since it started in 1969.

The LAPD unit has a similar mandate to the Montreal team, handling high-profile, complicated homicides and major robberies as well as sex crimes and cold cases, said Capt. Allan Michelena, the division commander. Los Angeles, a city of about four million, had 506 homicides in 2003 and 16,455 robberies.

"The real advantage to having these types of divisions is you've got to get your best people focused on these difficult crimes and give them the resources they need so they can solve them," Michelena said of the idea behind his unit of 65 detectives.

"They get the most complicated cases, the tough cases. The murders we get aren't gimmes, they're always a tough murder."

Bouchard, who heads Montreal's major crimes division, said the city closed out 2003 -- the combined unit's first year -- with about 100 armed robberies and 42 murders. There were 329 armed robberies and 55 murders in 2000 when he took over the unit, which has a solution rate of between 70 and 80 per cent.

The decision to merge robbery and homicide detectives into one unit is only one factor in the low numbers, Bouchard noted.

"Most of our robberies were done at the time by people who have a problem with drugs -- crackheads, heroin addicts and things like that," Bouchard said.

Many of them would be caught but were sent to rehabilitation centres -- again -- when they were sentenced and often never showed up for treatment.

"We'd be arresting the same guy over and over again," Bouchard said.

The police devised a strategy with the courts where no guilty pleas are allowed unless one of Bouchard's detectives is present to testify on the accused's background, including their history in rehab.

If the accused has already been sentenced to rehab on the outside, he'll get another chance -- "but he gets it behind bars." If it's his first time and he skips treatment, the rehabilitation centre is obliged to tell the Crown and an arrest warrant is issued.

Attacking the problem from that angle allowed Bouchard's detectives to concentrate on things such as organized crime, which he said is behind most of the city's armoured truck heists and smash-and-grab robberies.

"It gave us a chance to make bigger arrests," Bouchard said. "We've got these organized crime guys in jail now for seven, eight years plus we've diminished to almost nothing our narcotics guys doing robberies."

Bouchard credits the dip in murders in 2003 to the lack of a biker war, the efficiency of ambulance and hospital trauma teams keeping victims alive and cold weather at the beginning of last year.

"People weren't going out so we weren't getting the murders in the clubs where a guy would look at another guy the wrong way then punch him and he'd die," said the quick-talking Bouchard, who's been a cop for more than 30 years.

With the decline in homicides and armed robberies, Bouchard said police decided to refocus their efforts, especially with a new federal DNA data bank starting that increased the likelihood of more cold cases being solved.

Now Bouchard has detectives with expertise in robberies and homicides working on the same team with a case analyst. L.A. does not mix its detectives because the volume of crime requires its investigators to be specific in their expertise, Michelena said.

The Montreal cold case squad, which is also part of the unit, also has two members of the RCMP who work with the Montreal police to polish their investigative skills because the federal force does not investigate homicides or robberies in Quebec on its own.

"In a year-and-a-half, we've had 11 resolutions of old cases," Bouchard said.

Michelena echoed Bouchard's emphasis on the value of DNA, noting that the Los Angeles detectives had just arrested a man in a 30-year-old case.

"He killed about five women that we're aware of and then he kind of laid off," Michelena said. "We got him. He's 75 years old and now we got him in jail but back in the '70s he was out on a little rampage."

Most members of the Montreal unit have about 15 years experience and there is one woman in the unit. Bouchard considers her one of his best interrogators.

"She has a way about her," he said of the detective's ability to get suspects to open up. "It's the way she speaks to people, the way she connects. I don't know if it's eye contact -- whatever, it's great."

Bouchard noted that working homicide is one of the most stressful jobs in the police department and the new organization has given detectives more time with their families, cut overtime and eliminated burnout.

"It could be the most rewarding job when you bring a child back to their parents who has been kidnapped -- we've done that. It could also be a great job when 20 years later, you can advise a family that the guy who killed their dad 20 years ago is in jail today. We didn't forget.

"And yet it can be the worst of the worst when you have to knock on the door at five o'clock in the morning and say that your 15-year-old child was killed in a drive-by shooting and just have the mother fall into your arms.

"We speak for the guy who's dead or the lady who's dead. They can't speak for themselves."

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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