Saturday, February 4, 2012

Can Racial Profiling be Eradicated in Montreal?

A couple months ago, a Quebec Superior Court ordered a new trial for Joel Debellefeuille, who refused to show identification when stopped by Montreal police. The police report pointed out “reasons” for the stop including the fact that the car belonged to a man by the name of Debellefeuille but the person they had stopped was a black man who did not “correspond at first sight to the owner”. The report also stated that Debellefeuille sounded like a Quebecois family name and not a name of another origin. Finally, the intercepting officer specifically wrote that the primary reason he stopped Debellefeuille was because of his race.

Cases like this one - coupled with the fact that in the first half of 2011 they received 10 complaints against the Montreal police force for racial profiling – caused the Quebec Human Rights Commission to create a report with 93 recommendations to address racial profiling and discrimination in Quebec.

As a result, Mayor GĂ©rald Tremblay and Montreal police chief Marc Parent have outlined a ‘zero tolerance’ policy surrounding racial profiling with the goal of having a better understanding of vulnerable groups in society. The proposal calls for equal access to jobs, housing and social programs as well as monetary aid from the Province to help fight poverty and the resulting issues that arise from it.  The Mayor also stresses the responsibility that the public has in making Montreal a more tolerant community. At a press conference on the new initiative, Mayor Tremblay spoke of Montreal as an example of multiculturalism and stressed that, “Profiling in any shape or form is unacceptable”.

However, there is valid concern that the plan, press conferences and statements, however well intentioned, will end up simply being symbolic and ignoring both the root causes of profiling while also failing to provide consequences for when it occurs. For instance, Fo Niemi, director of the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations commented on the policy stating that, “The real skepticism lies in the position of the Police Brotherhood Union on racial and social profiling, and how it will work with the police management team to equip all officers with better management skills to police a diverse city. To date, the position is not clearly articulated where the plan of action is concerned.”

Niemi says that two recommendations specifically would have an immediate impact. First, that Montreal police revise the tactics being used by their anti-gang unit, which, he says, has been known to target young black men as being suspected of being gang members. The second is that Montreal police alter their policies regarding incivilities, which can include any public conduct deemed to be uncivil such as talking loudly, jaywalking or spitting in the street. The willingness of police to stop and fine people for these actions give them the leeway to go after a broad range of people as they choose.

The effectiveness of the ‘zero tolerance’ policy will depend on willingness at all levels of policing to keep an open mind and implement true changes that are meant to reach the root cause, not to quell negative press. What seems to be lacking are any concrete plans on how these police officers will be trained to think different about minority populations. Do these elected officials truly believe that years of inherent biases can be eradicated simply by stating that they are inappropriate? What would the most important changes be in trying to rid policing of racial bias and profiling? Similarly, what would the appropriate penalties even be for officers that participate in profiling, whether intentional or not?

Posted by Melissa Crowley (Windsor Law II)

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