Turmoil within Montreal police could be contributing to racial profiling, activist warns

A prominent civil rights activist is worried about recurring complaints of racial profiling by Montreal police in recent months.

Another profiling case prompts concern about culture of impunity at SPVM

Helena Backa, Andrew Denis-Lynch and Fo Niemi . Denis-Lynch believes he was the victim of racial profiling earlier this month. (Matt D'Amours/CBC )

The internal turmoil within the upper echelons of the Montreal police department may be contributing to recurring incidents of racial profiling by its officers, one of the city's most prominent civil rights activists said Sunday.

Fo Niemi, executive director of the Center on Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), said the centre has, since January, received a series of complaints about threatening encounters between police and black Montrealers.

That period coincides with controversy about the leadership of the Montreal force. It is currently the subject of two parallel investigations into allegations internal affairs officers fabricated evidence in a bid to silence whistleblowers. 

Montreal police Chief Philippe Pichet, appointed by Mayor Denis Coderre in 2015, has repeatedly faced calls for his resignation from opposition politicians at city hall.

"There should be questions asked about whether these incidents are a manifestation of the lack of leadership ... the lack of internal control and internal accountability over how police officers deal with young black men out in the streets," Niemi said at a news conference.

A dance questioned 

The latest case to come to the centre's attention involves a 26-year-old black man who was given a $48 traffic ticket while driving his white girlfriend's car.

Andrew Denis-Lynch said on March 7 he did a dance move to cheer up his girlfriend after parking the car outside her home in Côte-des-Neiges.

A police cruiser pulled alongside him and an officer demanded to know why he was "happy" and whether he was the owner of the car, according to Denis-Lynch.

He acknowledged he resisted initial requests to provide him name, demanding to know what he had done wrong. The situation escalated quickly after that.

Denis-Lynch girlfriend, Helena Backa, said a female officer became aggressive with them when she suggested there may be a language barrier, and offered to speak in French.

Helena Backa and Andrew Denis-Lynch spoke Sunday about the incident. (Matt D'Amours/CBC)

"She said 'Don't tell me how to do my job' and she went to grab my right wrist but Andrew got in the way," Backa said.

The officer then grabbed Denis-Lynch, but released him when Backa asked if they were being detained. 

The couple said the officers radioed for back-up and five other police cruisers soon arrived on the scene. The officers surrounded the couple and had their hands on their holsters, according to a statement prepared by CRARR.

After roughly 20 minutes, Denis-Lynch was handed a ticket for "being a pedestrian and standing on the roadway to deal with the occupant of a vehicle." 

"Six police cars to deal with a young black man for allegedly dancing in the middle of a small residential street, in front of his girlfriend's car and house, at midnight — I wonder [if] a young white man would be treated the same way," Denis-Lynch said in the statement prepared by CRARR. 

Persistent problems?

One week earlier, Niemi convened media to discuss another case of purported racial profiling. In that instance a black man driving a Mercedes claimed he was pulled over and handcuffed, then detained in the back of a Montreal police squad car while a video recording of the incident was erased.

"This seems to be happening slightly too often in the last three months," Niemi said of the complaints about racial profiling. "So we're just concerned there is something here."

In 2012, Montreal police devised an action plan for dealing with racial and social profiling. But the plan hasn't been updated since 2014, Niemi said.

CRARR brought Kenrick McRae's case to the media last week. McRae said he keeps a camcorder in his Mercedes because he's been 'stopped so many times' and wants to protect himself. (Matt D'Amours/CBC)

He added that Montreal police have largely dismantled the resources that were put in place by former chief Marc Parent to deal with profiling issues. 

"It's very important that the [current] police chief state very categorically ... what specific steps he and his dependants are going to take in order to prevent these kinds of upsetting incidents from taking place," Niemi said.

Montreal police declined a request for comment from CBC Montreal. The police department is expected to release a new racial profiling action plan later this year.

Niemi said CRARR will help Denis-Lynch file a complaint with the police ethics commission and, possibly, with the Quebec Human Rights Commission as well. 

With files from Matt D'Amours