Crime Takes a Bullet
Long-running Quebec tabloid Allô Police bids adieu
On January 23, 1975, Quebec police finally cornered the elusive local gangster Richard Blass. The handsome fugitive was laying low at a cottage in the Laurentians after setting fire to a Montreal nightclub, killing 13 people. Police surrounded the house and demanded that Blass give himself up. He refused. At 4:30 a.m., two officers broke down the front door; both sides let loose a hail of gunfire. Blass sustained 23 shots before dying. “The Cat” had used up his nine lives, but at All? Police, the reporters were purring.
The exclusive photo of Blass’s bullet-riddled corpse ran on the front page of All? Police and became former-editor Richard Desmarais’s favourite cover. The cover represented the magazine at its best – live, lurid, and exclusive – covering the stories no other media outlet would touch. For the first three decades of its existence,All? Police enthralled Quebecers with its graphic crime stories and gory pictures. But in the 1980s, the magazine’s impact, and popularity, declined sharply. It was finally discontinued last summer by its publisher,Section Rouge Media, Inc. Now, all that remains of this former “Quebec institution” is a hefty archive, guarded until recently by a strange old man named Gus.
All? Police was founded in 1953, when the Catholic Church dominated Quebec life and Union Nationale-leader Maurice Duplessis ruled the province with an iron fist. Duplessis’s authoritarian government, known for opposing free speech, strongly dissuaded crime coverage, and the dailies conceded. While they covered jury trials extensively, newspapers marginalized local crime and buried murders deep within their pages in the days following the event.
“It was considered trashy for the media to cover crime,” says Desmarais. And even when they did, newspapers rarely included pictures. During the Great Darkness, while Duplessis stifled the freedom of the press, All? Police shed light onto local crime while the dailies shied away.
The magazine littered its front pages with corpses and used language reserved for pocket crime novels. In 1987, while reviewing Quebec tabloids, The Globe and Mail‘s Oakland Ross highlighted two literary devices, which he noticed were repeatedly used in All? Police. One was the sickening crescendo – “Ninety-two knife blows for a funeral director … a crime of rare sadism … the blood squirted to the ceiling.” Another was the bathetic undercut – “She killed her husband at his mistress’s place… She came all the way from Ottawa on a Voyageur bus just for that.”
Because of All? Police‘s explicit content, clergy in the province urged Quebecers not to buy the tabloid – so everyone did. In its first decade, the magazine claimed a circulation of 150,000 per week.
The success of All? Police lay with its historical context – staunch Catholicism and the hunger to transcend it, lax libel laws, and an old-school camaraderie between the police and journalists. But the Quiet Revolution, triggered by Duplessis’s death in 1959, ushered in an era of secularization and liberalization of Quebec society. With it, crime news suddenly became mainstream, as did the rules governing its coverage; libel laws became more strict and the police started hiring their own spokespersons. In the authoritarian Quebec society of the 1950s, All? Police was the avant-garde, but the new liberalism would eventually render it anachronistic.
The All? Police formula was simple, says former-editor Bernard Tetrault: send one reporter and one photographer to every murder scene. Because other newspapers were not writing about crime in the magazine’s heyday, there was little competition; the tabloid could cover every crime that occurred within miles of its Montreal offices at a leisurely pace.
“All? Police has essentially covered every murder in the province since 1953,” says Tetrault. Journalists hopped in their cars, drove for a few days, filed their reports, and the story appeared five to 10 days after the events. There was no technology enabling journalists to go live from the scene, so there was little impetus for anyone to get there fast. Nor did All? Police have to look too hard for local crime stories – Quebec police usually tipped them off.
In the mid-1960s, a fire at its original office site forced the magazine to look for a new home. It found one conveniently located across from the headquarters of the Quebec Provincial Police (the S?ret? du Qu?bec), where every major crime was first called in. The tabloid had plenty of access to QPP officers and, to a lesser extent, the Montreal Police Service. Michel Auger, Journal de Montr?al‘s veteran crime reporter, says an ongoing joke circulated among journalists – police officers that arrived in Montreal with a suspect would stop at the All? Police offices first for a few drinks before proceeding to the police station.
“That was the idea behind All? Police,” says Auger. “The crime reporters and the police had a relationship.” Typically, the police would call the magazine and provide them with the address of that day’s crime scene. Some of the officers even brought the reporters with them to the crime site. In fact, according to Auger, All? Police had two photographers from the S?ret? du Qu?bec on their payroll, although the department’s spokesperson denies these allegations.
The magazine also used freelancers, knowing they could not cover the entire province from Montreal. This corps of freelancers patrolled the streets of Quebec and on some occasions arrived at a crime scene before the police.
Despite its reputation for sound journalism, being a tabloid meant that All? Police was usually greeted with skepticism. That changed with the Quebec Police Commission’s 1975 inquiry into organized crime. Law enforcement’s thorough investigation into syndicates, which All? Police had been reporting on for decades, validated the magazine’s raison d’?tre. Unfortunately, this was to be the tabloid’s final coup before its slow descent into obscurity.
In the early 1980s, the sales of All? Police started to plummet. Circulation went from 150,000 in the magazine’s heyday to a mere 20,000. Without the shackles of Duplessis’s rule, Quebec dailies, like Le Journal, started to compete with the weekly tabloid in earnest. Local television and radio got into the act, too.All? Police had found its niche in the Quebec countryside, but the growing number of radio and TV stations in effect bridged the gap separating these communities from Montreal.
Desmarais believes the magazine’s precipitous drop in sales was also due to staff’s diminished access to police. Suddenly, public-relations personnel were telling officers not to speak to reporters. Cops became more vigilant and less loose-lipped around crime scenes. “Today you have to move behind a yellow ribbon and stay behind there,” says Desmarais. “And libel laws are so much tougher today for those who dare step over the line.” To make up for the loss of its best sources, All? Police hired outsiders with good contacts – mostly with mobsters. Once the magazine started associating with the mob, says Auger, it lost its remaining police sources.
Desmarais took over All? Police in 1984 with the goal of improving the magazine’s readership. Previously, he had been editor at Photo Police!, a less-gory tabloid, also owned by Section Rouge Media, and brought toAll? Police the sexual side of its sister publication. “In the ’80s, it was more pornography than police stories,” says Auger. “I was still buying the paper, but now it was with a brown paper bag on my head.”
In 2003, Desmarais revamped All? Police to commemorate its 50th anniversary. All? Police hit newsstands in November stuffed with glossy paper, celebrity gossip, and horoscopes. He was attempting to compete withQuebecor’s celebrity magazines by toning down the tabloid’s crime coverage, thereby gaining display space in supermarkets.
But All? Police‘s foray into grocery stores proved unsuccessful. On July 12, 2004, Section Rouge Media, pulled the plug. A half-century of crime journalism now sits in the archives of the Section Rouge Media offices in Longueuil, Quebec. Lawyers and journalists, who use it as a reference library, plunder sporadically.
“The success of All? Police lay in its archives,” says Auger. Older issues pack the office’s grey filing cabinets, while those since 1993, are digitalized. Until recently, a short, heavy-set man who went by the name Gus guarded the archives. Auger says he never knew whether that was the “bizarre keeper’s” real name or not. He was a friendly guy who kept mostly to himself, very serious but one who enjoyed a hearty joke. Prior to computerization, the archives were manual. Gus knew every picture and every piece of paper, and could find anything within a few minutes. “He was really wrapped up in the archives,” says Auger. “He knew every story and every person in the judicial system – he was as fast as a computer.”