Montreal police filmed kneeling on Black teen's neck, prompting calls for investigation
Neck kneeling not prohibited by city police service, but Montreal mayor seeking answers about incident
A Quebec legislator is calling for an investigation into a video that shows a Montreal police officer kneeling on the neck of a Black 14-year-old, his face pressed into the sidewalk, in an image reminiscent of George Floyd's last moments.
Frantz Benjamin, a Liberal member of the Quebec National Assembly who represents the Montreal riding of Viau, says several constituents called him about the video. They say it evokes "collective trauma," reminding them of Floyd telling Minneapolis police officers more than 20 times that he couldn't breathe before he died on May 25, 2020.
The Montreal video was filmed by a passerby in front of a bus stop in the city's Villeray district on June 10.
According to a spokesperson for the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM), officers from Station 31 were responding to a call from Georges-Vanier High School about a fight involving more than a dozen young people from various schools.
The video, which was obtained by Radio-Canada, is about a minute and a half long and does not show the events leading up to the physical intervention.
It begins with two officers kneeling on a Black youth for approximately 15 seconds. They appear to be wrestling his hands behind his back. One has his left knee on the teen's neck and face, and the other officer's knee appears to be on the teenager's lower back.
The youth doesn't appear to be resisting or moving in any way. He cannot be heard saying anything.
WATCH | Video of the arrest (WARNING: Graphic footage):
Officers pin teen down
The two officers rise after about 15 seconds. The officer who had his knee on the youth's neck stands briefly, adjusts the youth's body position, and then kneels with both legs on the teen's neck and back.
The officer stays in that position for another 37 seconds.
While still pinning the teen down, the officer searches a bag and hands an object to his colleague. That officer then appears to show the object to the camera, saying the teen was being arrested for having a stun gun.
Beyond what is seen in the footage, it is not clear how long the officer was on the teen's neck, because the video starts and ends with him restraining the teen.
In a later interview, police told Radio-Canada that two minors were charged for carrying weapons, and an investigation is underway into the incident.
"If the use of force is not justified, the administration will take the required actions," said SPVM spokesperson Insp. David Shane.
Shane urged caution when viewing such videos, as the camera angle could be misleading. Whenever an officer uses force, a report is filled out and it will be reviewed, Shane said.
He said police issued various tickets to several teens that day and made a few arrests including this case — for having weapons, a stun gun and bear repellent (pepper spray).
Shane said the video only tells part of the story. Before it starts, two teens refused to identify themselves, he said. They arrested one, patted him down and found the bear repellent, Shane said.
The second teen appeared to panic when police found the repellent and reached for something in his own bag while pushing officers away, he said. That's when police brought the teen down to the ground to restrain and search him for a weapon, Shane said.
Shane said the officer who used the knee technique is continuing to work while the incident is under review.
"What we need to point out as well, during an intervention, the person who has the initiative, is always the suspect. Police have to react accordingly and with proportion," he told CBC News.
Benjamin, the MNA, says he sent a letter to the chief of police, Sylvain Caron, and is calling for an investigation into the officers' actions.
"It's shocking," he said. "It's even more shocking when we see there was no resistance."
Premier, mayor want answers
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante is also asking the SPVM to clarify what happened.
"The images circulating are worrying. This investigation should shed light on the entire intervention," she said in a statement to Radio-Canada.
"The images of the intervention once again reiterate the importance of implementing body cameras, which we are working on with our partners."
Premier François Legault also commented on the incident, saying he "didn't like seeing this photo."
"I've asked that we check with the SPVM [to see] why this happened, and I would like for it to not happen again," Legault said during a news conference on Friday.
Abdelhaq Sari, a city councillor from the borough of Montréal-Nord and the security critic for Ensemble Montréal, the official opposition at city hall, said the video raises "serious questions."
"An independent investigation will have to be carried out to shed light on this event," said Sari.
"This kind of arrest technique should only be used in cases of imminent danger. This is certainly not the case when the suspect is handcuffed."
Mother in distress
The mother of the teen in the video is now questioning what motivated police to pin her son to the concrete by his neck. CBC News is not identifying her because her son is a minor.
"Is it because my son is Black?" She asked. "It's not because we're Black that we have to experience those kind of things. We're humans. Poor child."
She said her son is now afraid to leave the house. She has sought help from a local organization that she and her son are involved with, the Maison D'Haiti.
The general director of that organization, Majorie Villefranche, said the community is demanding to know why the officer would use such a violent tactic in light of recent events.
"Really? Knee on the neck? Really? Right now?" She asked. "After George Floyd, you think you can do that again?"
It seems like the police are trying to humiliate the teen, she said. She said the boys were playing in the street, not fighting, contrary to what the police say.
The Black Coalition of Quebec is among organizations speaking out against the incident.
"Regardless of colour, origin or ethnicity, the brutal reality is that we must act to prevent the worst," the coalition said in a statement. "What would we have done or said if the 14-year-old had been killed?"
Kneeling on neck not against rules
Kneeling on a suspect's neck is not prohibited by the SPVM, says Stéphane Wall, a former sergeant and training instructor. The technique is used to force a suspect to surrender, but it has to be quick, he said.
Wall said once the suspect is handcuffed, the knee should be moved more toward the shoulders.
Sociologist Frédéric Boisrond, an independent strategic adviser for the SPVM since last summer, told Radio-Canada he is concerned about the agents' methods and manner.
"A youth handcuffed with one knee on the throat — that brings us back to rather disturbing images. I didn't expect to see that in Quebec in 2021," said Boisrond.
On Aug. 24, 2020, Ensemble Montréal proposed a motion calling for the end of any police tactic that obstructs a suspect's breathing.
The motion said these tactics should only be used as a last resort. The motion was adopted by Montreal city council, but it was not binding, as the SPVM, like any police service in Quebec, follows rules set by the provincial government.
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.
With files from Radio-Canada, Sarah Leavitt and AlisonNorthcott