The Montreal police Hate Crimes Unit was established one year ago, and while the dedicated team works to send a message that intolerance will not be tolerated, an incident in the city earlier this week — and the way it was handled by police — raises questions about how well that philosophy is being applied by police officers on the ground.

CBC News sat down with members of the specialized unit to discuss how things are going one year into its mandate, what it is working on right now and what its goals are for the future.

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Lt.-Det. Line Lemay, with the Montreal police Hate Crimes Unit, sat down with CBC's Jaela Bernstien for a check in one year after the new unit was unveiled. She says they're trying to go beyond crime and punishment, and also focus on prevention. (Martin Brunette/CBC)

So how are things going with the newly established team? According to Montreal police Lt.-Det. Line Lemay, "very well."

She points to the rise in reporting of hate crime incidents as a good thing, and even a measure of her unit's success.

"I believe there's more confidence to report ... and people know more and more that it is important to report those types of crimes," she said.

 'People know more and more that it is important to report those types of crimes' - Lt.-Det. Line Lemay, SPVM Hates Crimes Unit

Lemay adds that while hate crime represents a small fraction of all crimes in the city, the impact it can have sets it apart.

"Even if the numbers are not that high, it does touch a whole community."

That's why it's important to take all reports seriously, she says — even if they don't fall into the category of a criminal act.

Focus on hate-related 'incidents'

When the Hate Crimes Unit was first unveiled in May 2016, Mayor Denis Coderre billed it as a team that would focus on prevention.

The idea was that police would intervene in what they call hate-related "incidents" — disturbing or hurtful behaviour that hasn't reached the point of being criminal, but can still make people feel unsafe or hurt.

'They just feel free behind a computer to write or say anything' - Sgt.-Det. Stéphane Roch, SPVM Hate Crimes Unit

More than a year later, that approach is still a core tenet of the unit's philosophy.

"Sometimes through social media people don't think. They just feel free behind a computer to write or say anything," says investigator Sgt.-Det. Stéphane Roch.

He says when they see that a certain individual is targeting a specific groups or community on social media, he'll often intervene before it reaches the point of being a criminal act.

"Sometimes we call or we just show up … Most people are surprised. They didn't think it would go that far."

He says a chat about the potential consequences of hate-related behaviour is often enough to stop it before it gets worse.

"We don't ever see that again from them because they realize they went too far."

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Sgt.-Det. Stéphane Roch says if there's a hate crime between Monday to Friday when he's at work, it goes straight to him. "It can go from public incitement of hatred, to mischief, assault and death threats." (Martin Brunette/CBC)

Growing pains

Lemay and her team are adamant there's no hierarchy of hate crime. Whether it's on social media or in person, verbal or physical, it's all taken seriously, she says.

"It will not be treated differently," Lemay says.

While that may be the golden rule within the Hate Crimes Unit, an incident earlier this week suggests the police force at large might not be on the same page.

  • WARNING: OFFENSIVE IMAGE BELOW

Jewish Montrealer Steve Shivalofsky phoned police on Wednesday afternoon when he discovered an anti-Semitic message and a swastika scrawled on his car with shoe polish.

'I don't see why you would even bother having a hate crime unit if you're not going to come and investigate a hate crime' - Steve Shivalofsky, victim of anti-Semitic graffiti

He said the officer at the local station told him to "Wash it off," and that, "if this was the first time something like this had happened, they're not going to come take a report."

"To me it's just a complete failure. I don't see why you would even bother having a hate crime unit if you're not going to come and investigate a hate crime," he said.

The following day, police phoned Shivalofsky to apologize and open an investigation. 

While Shivalofsky is glad police are taking action now, he says that's what they should have done in the first place.

"It's important that these things are taken seriously and not just brushed aside," he said.

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Steve Shivalofsky and his girlfriend found this hateful message scrawled on their car, which was parked outside their home in Montreal's Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood. (Corey Fleischer/Facebook)

When CBC interviewed members of the Hate Crimes Unit, the case was in the process of being transferred from the local police station.

Lemay told CBC she didn't have enough information to comment on why the officer initially declined to take the report, but she said that kind of graffiti should qualify as a hate crime case.

"I don't have all the facts with me but I'm going to be able to talk with Station 11 after and see what happened," she said.

"We always work together [with local police stations] so if there's anything bad or good, we're going to work together to improve how things are for sure."

Quick response is key

As an investigator, Roch says when a complaint comes across his desk, he tries to respond within the first 24 hours.

He knows how hurt and afraid victims of hate crimes can feel.

"People fear leaving their house ... it has a major impact on people's lives," he says.

"Don't get me wrong, any sort of crime would affect anyone. But [a hate crime] is even stronger because you feel like it's because of who I am that I'm being targeted. It's my identity."

When the unit was first unveiled last year, Lemay said they sent out emails and met with community relations officers at each station to spread the word about how to report hate-related incidents and crimes.

But, Lemay adds, there's more work to do.

"We're going to continue to work with police on the road to make sure that reports are taken, to explain why it is important. We are still working on that to inform them as much as possible."