Why the SPVM's new street checks policy won't address driving while Black

In an exclusive interview with CBC Montreal, a senior SPVM officer explains why traffic stops aren't part of a new policy aimed at curbing racial bias in policing.

In an exclusive interview with CBC Montreal, a senior SPVM officer says safety had to be balanced with rights

A demonstrator holds up a sign outside the constituency office of Quebec Premier François Legault during a Driving While Black protest in L'Assomption, Que., last weekend. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

When Montreal police released their long-awaited new policy on street checks this summer, many anti-racism activists were dismayed it did not address Black drivers being stopped for spurious reasons, an issue known commonly as "driving while Black."

In an exclusive interview with CBC Montreal, one of the senior officers in charge of the new policy explained why vehicle stops were excluded from the revamped guidelines. 

SPVM chief inspector Vincent Richer said that in developing the policy, police had to balance the rights of individuals with the need for safety on the road.

"That's the equilibrium we have to think about when we put in place different policies," he said. 

The guidelines for street checks were overhauled after evidence emerged of systemic bias in Montreal policing.

SPVM chief inspector Vincent Richer says police officials balanced the rights of individuals with the need for safety on the road when developing the street checks policy. (CBC)

Beginning this fall, street checks by Montreal officers will have to be based on observable facts, and not "discriminatory motives."

When officers interact with citizens outside the context of a crime, citizens will no longer be legally obligated to identify themselves or required to respond to the officer's questions.

But when it comes to stopping drivers, Richer said police have to be able to collect identifying information in order to ensure the sobriety of the driver, the validity of the driver's license and the mechanical workings of the vehicle. 

"It's a question of safety," Richer said. "Quebec's Highway Safety Code gives these powers to the officer."

    'A major oversight' 

    Fo Niemi, who heads the anti-racism advocacy group Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, said he is concerned that "safety" is often used as a pretext to pull over Black drivers. 

    "It's a means to control Black individuals' mobility and their freedom to go wherever they want," Niemi said. 

    His organization, which offers legal support to citizens dealing with police oversight bodies, has received six complaints so far this year about Montreal officers who allegedly pulled over Black drivers for unfounded reasons.

    CRARR is involved in five further driving-while-Black complaints against officers from off-island police forces. 

    Niemi also helped organize two protests this summer, which were attended by dozens of Black Montrealers who said they had been subject of groundless traffic stops by police.

    Two "Driving while Black" protests were held this summer, calling for an end to racial profiling by police in Quebec. The protest last weekend ended at the constituency office of Quebec Premier François Legault in L'Assomption, Que. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

    "To leave out driving while Black, knowing that most of the time racial profiling occurs in vehicles, Black drivers being pulled over, that's a major oversight," Niemi said. 

    Niemi wants to see legislation that will define racial profiling and prohibit the practice in every aspect of public and private security — including on the road. 

    Training underway to implement new policy 

    The SPVM's street checks policy was drafted after an independent report last year found that Indigenous, Black and young Arab people were more likely to be stopped by Montreal police than other demographic groups.

    Richer said officers are currently being trained about how to implement the new policy, a process that is expected to last until early November.

    In the meantime, Montreal's elected officials are seeking input from citizens about the policy. The city's public security committee launched an online consultation on Monday. Individuals have one month to present written or video testimony to the committee, which will study them and make recommendations.

    But Richer said it will take some time before police implement whatever further recommendations emerge from the committee.

    "We need to put [the policy] out there, and police officers have to use it for us to really evaluate how it's used on the field," Richer said. 

    Niemi said the public consultation that took place before the policy was drafted was not sufficient, and that more in-depth discussion with community groups would have been better. 

    "Black community members have become passive, powerless observers of these policies that affect them, but over which they have no say," Niemi said.

    For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

    A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.


    Claire Loewen

    Former CBC journalist

    Claire Loewen was a journalist with CBC Montreal until 2020.