Editorial: Racial profiling by Montreal police has got to stop

We all have friends, family, and neighbours who know about that ugly phenomenon known as “driving while black.”

It refers to police in Montreal, and other areas of Quebec and North America, stopping young men of colour driving nice cars, based on the idea that the two are incompatible, and therefore there are grounds to stop the driver and investigate.

The latest case of alleged racial profiling involves the detention, alleged aggressive police actions, and ticketing of a bi-racial couple who were walking and laughing on Saint Laurent Blvd. near Roy on Saturday, April 7, at 10:15 am, as they looked for a place for brunch.

It appears be a case of “laughing while black,” or “bi-racial profiling” since one of the couple is black, and in the words of Fo Niemi, executive director of the Center for Research Action on Race Relations (CRARR) a clear case of “excessive force and abuse of power” in their arrest and initial detention.

If all the facts in the case are corroborated, this constitutes an outrageous action by police, a throwback to a darker time of racial intolerance. The couple was never informed of the reason for their arrest until after backup was called, even though neither resisted. Brian Mann, executive director of Concordia University Television, who is white, said he asked the cops if there was a law against talking and laughing and they responded they would decide what defines too loud and issued tickets to each for $444 for excessive noise. This was after police drove the woman, who is of Haitian origin and is reluctant to disclose her name, around the block insisting, she said, she tell them where she was concealing drugs. And Mann says three cops ran toward him after he asked why they were detaining his girlfriend, grabbed his arms, kicked him in the back of the knee, punched him in the face and kicked him to the ground, then handcuffed and pepper sprayed him.

The couple is filing complaints with the police ethics board and the Quebec Human Rights Commission for excessive force and abuse of power in an unnecessary arrest. Montreal police will not comment on individual cases. But Samaki-Éric Soumpholphakdy, Station 35 commander who is also responsible for measures to combat racial and social profiling (such as treatment of the homeless and intellectually handicapped) said there were about 20 human rights commission complaints a year, but only three in the last few years that reached the Human Rights Tribunal stage where cops were found guilty after the rights commission findings were refused.

Still, Soumpholphakdy said the police force accepts the fact that racial and social profiling by its members does happen, but adds the pledge that, “we will train our personnel, make them aware of the issue, and we are drafting a new plan on racial and social profiling, which should come out at the beginning of the summer.”

In August the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission recognized that Amal Asmar was a victim of racial and social profiling – believed to be the first such judgment of its kind in Quebec – when she was mistreated and fined $1,040 by Montreal police while she was sitting on a bench at a bus stop near the Alexis Nihon plaza on Ste-Catherine St., wearing a kaffiyeh, the checkered scarf that is common dress in the Middle East.

Such alleged actions are not isolated cases – they do happen elsewhere in North America – and we agree with Fo Niemi, who has been following such cases for decades, that there has been a lack of clear and forceful leadership from the police force on this issue. We expect and demand that this change!

Among the most egregious cases is one in which Longueuil police racially profiled Joel De Bellefeuille in 2012. He was driving his son to daycare in his BMW when two cops heading the other way did a U-turn, following for 11 blocks, and demanded his ID. The Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission has ruled it was racial profiling and asked Longueuil to pay him $12,000 in damages, but the City refuses. The case is now going to be heard by the Human Rights Tribunal.

In another case involving DeBellefeuille, the rights commission ordered Longueuil to suspend two other officers without pay for five days after they stopped him driving his BMW because they refused to believe a black man could have “a Québecois sounding name” like DeBellefeuille!

Young black men who go to bars on St. Laurent and Crescent tell of being stopped and asked for ID, a form of carding, by the anti-gang unit. Carding has been banned in Toronto as a form of racial profiling and it should be stopped here.

The city of Montreal is not commenting on the latest case while it is under legal challenges, but Alexander Norris, associate city councillor responsible for public security, says “any incident of racial profiling or excessive use of force against citizens will not be tolerated.”

Norris points out that after hearings under the Coderre administration in March, the City of Montreal adopted “the most far-reaching policies ever adopted to combat racial and social profiling” affecting both the police department at the level of operations and the City’s bylaws. It is examining which municipal bylaws might be used in profiling cases, in order to amend them.

The police force also has been asked to begin collecting data on the racial or social group of people stopped by police “to have better overall information on who gets stopped and why,” Norris says.

“We believe that by tackling this problem head-on, it will not only result in improved relations between citizens and police but ultimately in a better working environment for police themselves,” Norris adds, saying the police leadership is “very much aware of our determination to tackle this issue and has undertaken to cooperate with us.”

Whether it does remains to be seen. Certainly, the Montreal police department has a long way to go to prove by its training and actions that it is ready to ensure equal treatment to all, irrespective of race, ethno-cultural background, or social situation.

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