Montreal police want to get tougher on gun violence. Will the plan backfire?

Montreal police have vowed to stamp out the recent wave of gun violence in the city's east end. But community groups are worried the SPVM will rely too much on a stronger police presence, and ignore the root causes behind the violence.

Community groups say police crackdown could ignore root causes of violence, make matters worse

Montreal Police Chief Sylvain Caron says the SPVM is determined to put an end to the recent increase in gun violence in the city. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Community groups in the city's east end are working feverishly on the ground to prevent an escalation of violence in the aftermath of a recent wave of shootings.

But they're worried the Montreal police's preferred strategy to deter gunplay could ultimately do more harm than good.

Several incidents have been reported in recent weeks, including last Sunday, when 15-year-old Meriem Boundaoui was killed in a drive-by shooting in Saint-Leonard. Two weeks ago, a 26-year-old man was shot and killed in Montréal-Nord. Both cases fit into a broader pattern.

In recent days, the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) has vowed to crack down on gun violence, relying on a stronger police presence in the affected neighbourhoods and the creation of a specialized anti-gun squad.

The new unit, to be known as L'équipe dédiée à la lutte contre le trafic d'armes (or ELTA), will target firearms traffickers, and is starting with an annual budget of up to $3 million.

"Montreal is a safe city, and the SPVM is working tirelessly to make sure it stays that way," Montreal Police Chief Sylvain Caron said during a joint news conference Thursday with Mayor Valérie Plante.

Pierreson Vaval has been with Équipe RDP, a non-profit organization that caters to youth in Rivières-des-Prairies, for nearly 25 years. He said he's heard the same speech from Montreal police countless times.

There was an accumulation of stuffed animals and flowers near the intersection where 15-year-old Meriem Boundaoui was killed last Sunday. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

He's often collaborated with neighbourhood-level officers, but believes the only way to make a real difference is by making sure community organizations aren't forced to get by on drops in the financial bucket. The key, he said, is providing them with funding similar to what's given to law enforcement.

"We don't have anything to prove anymore," Vaval said in reference to the documented positive effects groups like his can have when given enough resources.

"The only way to fix these problems is to make sure that our kids, our youth, especially those who have a hard time finding their place in the community, are assisted and supported."

On Thursday, both Caron and Plante stressed the importance of involving community groups in the plan to reduce violence, with the mayor issuing a plea to the provincial government to come up with more funding for them.

Last fall, the province released a $65-million dollar plan to fight gun violence, with nearly $20 million of it destined for the Sûreté du Québec. Montreal police and Quebec City police each received about $4 million. 

There was no money earmarked for community organizations.

Pierreson Vaval is the director of Équipe RDP and has worked with youth in Rivières-des-Prairies for more than 20 years. (Submitted by Pierreson Vaval)

'The problem is much deeper than that'

The ELTA unit is being set up at a time where many advocates are demanding police receive less funding, not more. Calls to defund the police and stop racial profiling grew louder in the wake of George Floyd's killing last spring. 

For many community groups, the $15-million boost to the Montreal police's latest annual budget and the service's renewed commitment to get tough on gun violence threaten to fly in the face of both objectives, given the intense scrutiny they expect Black and brown youth to come under as a result.

The millions of dollars invested in law enforcement are also unlikely to produce meaningful results in the long term according to Roberson Berlus, who has worked with youth in Montréal-Nord for 16 years.

"A few months ago, they did two raids related to firearms, and three days later there were other gunshots," Berlus said. 

"The problem is much deeper than that. Weapons are one thing, but who is holding the weapons? We're talking about teenagers. They're the ones holding the weapons. They're the ones we need to offer alternatives to."

Vaval, of Équipe RDP, said that in the long run too strong an emphasis on police enforcement will only exacerbate those problems.

"Imagine if the money the SPVM is asking for was invested in measures of prevention, assistance in support in the targeted communities. It would change everything," Vaval said. "But do we have the courage to do it?"

Roberson Berlus, who works with youth in Montréal-Nord, says police interventions alone cannot derail gun violence. (Josh Grant/CBC)

Message from SPVM, mayor, creates panic, expert says

Earlier this week, Montreal police Insp. David Bertrand told Radio-Canada that gun-related offences had risen by about 15 per cent between 2019 and 2020.

However, Ted Rutland, who is an associate professor with Concordia University, pointed out that in 2019 the SPVM's annual report showed a steep 21 per cent drop in what was described as "infractions related to firearms."

A spike of around 15 per cent in the year that followed would be problematic, he said, but it would also mean it was, all things considered, an average year in terms of gun-related crimes.

Rutland says repeated talk about an increase in gun violence from Montreal police and the mayor doesn't tell the whole story.

"There are gun crimes, and it should be concerning to us, but if we respond in a kind of a panic, it seems like the only solution is to send more police into the neighbourhood," said Rutland.

The ELTA squad's investigations into arms trafficking networks are expected to complement those from the SPVM's Quiétude unit, which was formed in 2019 to reduce gun-related crimes. 

Last fall, Rutland released a report which found that 74 per cent of the people arrested by that unit were Black.

"In the neighbourhoods where there have been some shootings, there's a crying need for investments in communities. They've been calling for those investments for decades," he said.

"If we can just hold off with the panic for a moment, and look at the actual situation, we'll realize that what we really need to do, right away, and in a significant way, is invest in programs that other communities have already."

Listen l Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante discusses the SPVM's plan to tackle gun violence

With files from Josh Grant and Radio-Canada's Mathieu Prost


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