Police ethics committee finds Montreal officers guilty of racial profiling

Two officers arrested 54-year-old Errol Burke, a Black man, after mistaking him for an 18-year-old suspect.

"I feel vindicated," says Errol Burke, who was buying milk when he was wrongfully arrested and handcuffed

Errol Burke was wrongfully arrested while buying milk at a Montreal convenience store in 2017. The officers involved have been found guilty of racial profiling. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC)

A police ethics board judge has found two Montreal police officers guilty of racial profiling, using excessive force and illegally searching a 54-year-old Black man.

Errol Burke was getting milk at his local Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce convenience store on Feb. 18, 2017, when the officers wrestled him to the ground, searched and handcuffed him. 

"I'm relieved and I'm elated at the fact that the [police] ethics committee is looking at me as someone who's truthful and that I have credibility," Burke said at a news conference Sunday outside the store on Décarie Boulevard. 

In the 38-page ruling released Oct. 6, Justice Benoit McMahon found that the two officers involved in the 2017 detainment had wrongfully apprehended and handcuffed Burke, who was buying milk at a Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce dépanneur.

"I feel vindicated, you know, and victorious," he said.

The officers, Constables Pierre Auger and Jean-Philippe Théorêt, were looking for a suspect described as a Black 18-year-old man whose height was 1.85 metres, whereas Burke stands at 1.70 metres and was 54 years old at the time of the intervention. Burke and the suspect were also wearing different styles of clothing. 

They released Burked after they realized he was not the suspect.

McMahon wrote in the decision that the officers "did not behave in a manner to preserve the trust and consideration required by their functions toward Monsieur Errol Burke."

The judge found Auger and Théorêt guilty of wrongfully arresting, handcuffing and searching Burke; failing to inform him of the motives for their arrest, using excessive force and being disrespectful toward him. 

McMahon also said they were "negligent or careless of the health and safety of Monsieur Burke."

Since the incident, Burke says he remains "hypervigilant" to police officers' presence. 

"Mistakes get made," he said. "But the fact is when mistakes are made, the mistakes are always denied and by denying those mistakes, you're also denying the truth of what happens to people like myself." 

Errol Burke and Fo Niemi, the director for the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations, spoke to reporters outside the convenience store Sunday. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC)

Fo Niemi, executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, says the police ethics committee will hold another hearing on sanctions in a few months, but he expects officers to appeal those sanctions at the court of Quebec. Still, he says the process is worth pursuing.

"What struck us back when [Burke] first contacted us is this phenomenon of jumping on any Black person that they could find at the time even if the suspect description just does not match his profile," Niemi said. 

"We want a decision that clearly reflects the principle that Black lives matter, and hopefully in this case we will have that." 

In 2020, the Human Rights Commission recommended Montreal police pay Burke $45,000 after its own ruling also found the officers racially profiled him

The Human Rights Tribunal will hear Burke's case in December 2022. Sanctions for the officers based on the ethics board decision are expected in the coming months. 

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.

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With files from Rowan Kennedy