Racial profiling problems ignored amid SPVM crisis, advocates say
Under the SQ’s Martin Prud’homme, will anything change for city's marginalized communities?
After a homeless man was fatally shot outside the Old Brewery Mission in January, its president began meeting regularly with Philippe Pichet, then head of the Montreal police department.
Pichet and Matthew Pearce were working on ways to improve relations between police and the city's homeless population. Officers were dispatched to serve food at the mission and take part in training sessions led by its staff.
But last Wednesday's meeting was abruptly cancelled. Pichet's work as police chief was damned in a government report released that morning and he was promptly suspended — halting his work with Pearce.
"We were on the right path and we have to keep going," Pearce said Sunday. "My concern would be that the kind of priority Pichet gave to this matter will also be given by the new police chief."
Replacing Pichet, for the time being, is Martin Prud'homme, who is on leave from his post at the head of the Sûreté du Québec.
Prud'homme, of course, will be expected to address the long list of internal problems highlighted in the report that led to Pichet's suspension.
But he will also be under scrutiny to repair the force's relationship with some of the city's most marginalized communities. That's something that was neglected in recent years as the Montreal police force increasingly became embroiled in scandal, according to some civil rights advocates.
And they question whether Prud'homme is the right person to deal with the issue, given the SQ has been beset by its own problems with minority groups.
Diversity relegated to backburner?
The provincial government's report into the SPVM described a "deep malaise" within the force.
"Confidence of civil and police personnel in the police leadership is at an extremely worrying level," thanks in part to a number of internal investigations that were botched, the report found.
Prud'homme has been tasked with restoring integrity and transparency to the police force.
Fo Niemi, one of the city's most prominent anti-racism advocates, wants the city to add a third priority: improved relations with minorities.
Niemi, the executive director of the Centre on Research-Action on Race Relations, raised concerns earlier this year that problems within the force were contributing to recurring incidents of racial profiling by its officers.
His centre has brought attention to a number of troubling recent cases, including that of a black man who said he was pulled over and handcuffed, then detained in the back of a squad car while a video recording he'd taken of the incident was erased by the officers.
The government report into the SPVM has only compounded Niemi's fears that minority issues will be further sidelined.
"What we're concerned about is that, given the problems of corruption and lack of transparency, the whole issue of diversity will be relegated to the background, and that's bad for a city as diverse as Montreal," Niemi said.
SQ has its own troubles
The new administration at Montreal City Hall has done its best to put a positive twist on the scathing report and resulting leadership change.
Alex Norris, chair of Montreal's public security commission, said it represented an "extraordinary opportunity to change the culture of the SPVM and to open a new chapter in the history of the force."
But Prud'homme's background as an SQ officer doesn't inspire Niemi's confidence. "The SQ is not known for being a police service that is very sensitive or responsive to ethnic diversity issues, both externally and internally," Niemi said.
A 2016 CBC News analysis found that more than 99 per cent of SQ officers are white. Provincial police were also at the centre of a scandal in Val-d'Or, where six officers were temporarily suspended after Radio-Canada uncovered several allegations of abuse toward Indigenous women.
No charges were laid, but the controversy contributed to the creation of a public commission into the government's relations with Indigenous communities.
Racial profiling cases still not tracked
Racial and social profiling has been a problem in Montreal for years. A 2011 report by the Quebec Human Rights Commission found that ethnic minorities in Quebec are subject to "police surveillance that is targeted and disproportionate."
A year later, Montreal police devised an action plan for dealing with racial and social profiling. But the plan hasn't been updated since 2014.
This fall, a group of city and borough councillors came up with 31 recommendations aimed at countering the profiling problem. They urged police to create a database to track complaints.
"The problems posed by racial and social profiling persist," the councillors said in a joint statement, adding "these behaviours are neither normal nor tolerable in its public service."
According to Niemi, there has been no follow-up action. Under Pichet, moreover, the SPVM dismantled resources that his predecessor, Marc Parent, had put in place to deal with profiling issues.
Another report made public last month — and only after the Montreal Gazette forced its release through access-to-information laws — found that police failed to achieve many of the profiling objectives they set for themselves five years ago.
"The police don't understand the lives of the people they're policing," said Myrna Lashley, the report's lead author. "They have difficulty putting themselves in the shoes of the person standing in front of them."
But Pearce, the head of the Old Brewery Mission, said he was encouraged by the training sessions his staff held with police this year.
"This will be a gradual effort to draw police into a greater sensitivity to the reality of homelessness and mental health in public spaces," he said.
No word yet on when he will be meeting with Prud'homme.