Time to put a check on police checks, experts and critics say

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Pressure is mounting on the Montreal Police department to put an end to its controversial and discriminatory practice of random checks on pedestrians and drivers, also known as carding.

It disproportionately targets minority and racialized communities. Judges in Ontario and Nova Scotia have ruled that the practice is illegal.

We heard about carding – interpellations in French – during the public inquiry into the slaying by a police officer in Aug. 2008 of unarmed 18-year-old Freddie Villanueva in Montreal North. Const. Jean-Loup Lapointe fatally shot the young man as he was trying to assist his older brother, Dany Villanueva who was about to be handcuffed. Lepointe said he opened fire because he thought he was about to be disarmed.

He had testified that while on patrol he kept a notebook where he recorded the names of young men he stopped and questioned even through they were not identified as suspects in any specific infraction under investigation and were not arrested. He and other police officers used these “street checks” to gather basic information that could be stored in a database. This was identified as a source of tension between police and minority communities and contravenes the Quebec and Canadian human rights charters.

An independent study commissioned by Montreal police and made public last month revealed its officers stop people from visible minorities far more frequently than they stop Caucasians: In the four years 2014-1017 under study, the findings show Blacks and Indigenous people in Montreal were four times more likely to be subject to police street checks than Caucasians, while people identified as Arab were twice as likely. Indigenous peoples are increasingly targeted, the report found, especially Indigenous women who were checked at a rate 11 times higher than white women.

Police chief Sylvain Caron said in a press conference that he was humbled by the findings but stopped short of admitting these statisticsindicated police officers practiced racial profiling, explaining that street checks can be the result of a call to police. And some cops, he conceded, “have biases like all citizens can have.”

If citizens do have biases, they are not usually armed, and don’t go around seeking confidential information from those against whom they may have biases. Of course, there is the implied threat of unknown reprisals if the person stopped fails to give police the information they seek.

While conceding possible biases can result in racially motivated street checks, Chief Caron did promise action. It appears to be more necessary than ever because the study found the number of street checks more than doubled during the study period to 45,000 in 2917 from 19,000 in 2014. Police at two downtown stations carried out most of them.

Caron promised a formal policy on street checks by March, mandating an external firm to survey minority communities on race relations, launching a similar study on radical profiling in February and implementing a focus on racial biases into all of its practices and training, with an emphasis on Indigenous issues. His commitments mirror the five recommendations in the report on street checks.

Fo Niemi, executive director of the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations, said he was pleased with the report and the promise by Caron for early action.

“The report and its recommendations indicate that racial profiling is more than about ‘bad apples’ (in the police force) – It’s about how a system does nothing about them or allows them to continue and even flourish.”

An alliance of Montreal communitygroups, meanwhile, has called for animmediate ban on carding interventions. They include the Black Coalitionof Quebec, CRARR, Jamaica Association of Montreal, Filipino Association of Montreal and Suburbs, and Côte-des-Neiges Black Community Association.

Alain Babineau, former RCMP staff Sgt. and recent McGill University law graduate, who is advising CRARR, pointed out that whatdetermines the legality a policeinterception is what motivates it.

“An interception that is based on stereotypes or suspicions, that’s illegal,” he told a news conference. But an interception is permissible if it’s based on information, or with the goal of protecting a specific property.

In reviewing the practice of random checks and carding, Ontario judge Michael Tulloch ruled in December that “there is little to no evidence that random, unfocused collection of identifying information has benefits that outweigh the social cost.”

As a result, Ontario instituted a new policy that police officers must inform people that they have a right not to talk to police or produce identification in cases other than arrest, detainment or when a search warrant is executed. The rules do not apply to undercover operations.

The new policy has had dramatic results, the Toronto Star has reported – a decline of almost 75 per cent in the two years the regulation has been in force. In 2017, police in Ontario report 359 data collections from these random checks cumulatively as compared to 81 collections in 2018.

The Nova Scotia government in April halted all street checks pending a decision on how to regulate the practice. It followed an independent report indicating that Blacks in Halifax were street checked at a rate six times higher than Caucasians.

The Black Coalition of Quebec, meanwhile, has launched a $4 million class-action lawsuit against the Montreal Police department seekingcompensation for racial profilinginvolving street checks on more than 50 individuals over 18 months.

Marguerite Mukarurema, who coordinates work on these cases, said “the authorities have not taken these complains about racial profiling seriously enough to address the situation.”

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