Why the Montreal police's new action plan won't solve racial profiling

It is disappointing to find that the Montreal police service's new action plan against social and racial profiling, released in December 2018, should be as timid as it is and is no match for scale and gravity of racial profiling.

New police strategy is 'a step backwards,' says researcher Anne-Marie Livingstone

In December 2018, Montreal Police Chief Sylvain Caron unveiled the service's new action plan to curb profiling. It requires the department to record the number of cases where an officer is found guilty of racial or social profiling. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Black History Month is an occasion to look back on and honour the rich history and hard-won achievements of people of African descent all over the world, including in Canada. However, the celebration is always mixed with the sobering sense that the struggle for greater racial equality is far from realized and that much work remains to be done.

In Montreal, cases of racial profiling by police officers seem to be cropping up in the news more rather than less often. Just this week, CBC reported on a black male who was fined for walking on the street while trying to avoid the icy sidewalks on which a friend had recently fallen and been injured.

Montrealer Lateef Martin is fighting a ticket he got for walking in the street when he said sidewalks were too icy. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

In this context, it is all the more disappointing to find that the Montreal police service's (SPVM) new action plan against social and racial profiling, released in December 2018, falls well short of the scale and gravity of the problem.

When compared to the first action plan, which ran from 2011 to 2014, the new plan shows little sign the SPVM has evolved in its thinking about the causes and remedies to racial profiling.

In fact, there is reason to worry it represents a step backwards.

1st plan barely got off the ground

The police service's first plan was examined in detail by a team of academic scientists, who submitted a report to the SPVM in 2015. (It became public only in 2017.)

Results showed that the strategy barely got off the ground, and ended without producing any significant improvements in policy or in the minds and practices of police officers.

The report's authors conclude that the SPVM implemented only a fraction — one-third — of the measures it had originally proposed.

Montreal researcher Anne-Marie Livingstone, now a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, conducted research in Montreal that showed profiling creates enormous stress and anxiety for young people of colour. (CBC News)

Feedback from police officers revealed that training workshops on racial and social profiling had proven largely ineffective.

Officers could not recall what they had been taught in the workshops and admitted their views and behaviours had been left virtually unchanged.

One would have hoped the SPVM would have taken these findings into account in preparing the second action plan. Instead, the 2018-2021 strategy puts us no further ahead.

Several facts stand out.

First of all, the plan remains surprisingly evasive about the prevalence of racial profiling, despite the overwhelming evidence. At separate points in the document, the SPVM makes the claim that "perceptions" of racial profiling may at times be faulty and not "real."

The action plan also sows confusion by placing the controversial concept of "criminal profiling" in juxtaposition with "racial profiling," as if the two were correlated. One especially troubling passage says that criminal profiling may be required for police officers to track an actual infraction or prevent "future infractions."

It is precisely this ambiguity in language and the wide latitude given to police officers to prevent "future infractions" that causes racial minority youth in Montreal to be discriminated against and stopped at higher rates than average.

Police officers have been taught to … act on racial stereotypes of delinquency.- Dr. Anne-Marie Livingstone

There cannot be any confusion between racial profiling and criminal profiling. Racial profiling is an act of racial discrimination that does not obey evidence or the law.

Another lacuna of the plan is its implicit premise that racial profiling can be fixed by altering the attitudes of police officers rather than reforming the culture and structure of the institution.

Racial profiling is widespread

Over the past three years, my colleagues and I carried out the first-ever qualitative study on racial profiling in policing and its impact on racial minority youth in Montreal.

The study was implemented in Saint-Michel, a neighbourhood where the problem has long been talked about, yet never systematically investigated.

We interviewed a total of 51 young men and women, aged 15 to 28 years.

In a public report we released in December 2018, we conclude that not only is racial profiling widespread in the neighbourhood, but it is shored up by a combination of seemingly race-neutral policies that disproportionately target and hurt racial minority youth — especially black youth.

In the summer of 2018, about a dozen young Montrealers delivered to City Hall a petition with 20,000 signatures demanding public hearings on systemic racism and discrimination against visible minorities. (CBC) (CBC)

If racial profiling in Montreal is to be ended, several policies in particular need to be abolished.

One of the policies causing racial profiling is the use of identity checks. A large number of young people told us that police officers had randomly stopped them to ask for an ID. Some youth had undergone the same ID check several times, even though police officers had learned their names.

Of the 51 youth we interviewed, slightly more than 50 per cent had been intercepted at least once by the police — in the majority of cases, these stops were unsubstantiated.

Police officers kept a high and visible presence throughout the neighbourhood, especially in places where young people congregate. Officers patrolling by car or on foot were known to harass and question youth who were innocently playing basketball or hanging out in a park.

Young people were also frequently stopped and fined for minor incivilities such as riding a bike on the sidewalk, loitering, spitting, and littering. Fines rose above $100.

In our report, we detail the all-too-frequent times that young people had to endure verbal and physical abuse after being caught in the net of the police. They reported being called a "n--ger," getting hit with a baton or Taser, having a gun pointed at them, and receiving physical beatings.

"If the SPVM truly wants to end racial profiling, it will rewrite its action plan."- Dr. Anne-Marie Livingstone

The intensity of police surveillance in the neighbourhood is both buttressed and aggravated by a racialized discourse of "street gangs" the SPVM has propagated for years. In essence, police officers have been taught to believe in, and act on, racial stereotypes of delinquency.

Research has never conclusively shown that delinquency is any higher among racial minority youth compared with white youth in Montreal; in fact, in our research we discovered the rate of delinquency in Saint-Michel to be lower than the city average.

Altogether, the evidence from our study shows that any strategy to eliminate racial profiling must deal with the racial stereotypes and discriminatory practices that are woven into the organizational policies of the SPVM.

Educating police officers about racial profiling will not do away with the fact that they are bound by an organizational culture and set of norms and practices that instruct them to view black youth and other youth of colour as delinquents, to carry out indiscriminate identity checks, and to monitor and punish harmless youthful indiscretions.

Years after her arm was broken during an arrest outside the Olympia Theatre in Montreal's east end in November 2014, Majiza Philip's surgical scar is still visible. (Charles Contant/Radio-Canada)

The toll that racial profiling exacts on young people's hearts and minds, and their feelings of safety and belonging, is intolerable. In interviews, young people spoke to us of experiencing stress, trauma, anxiety, and a fear and distrust of the police after facing police abuse or being arbitrarily watched, stopped, and detained.

Unfortunately, most victims of racial profiling in Montreal are left to suffer and cope on their own and in silence.

If the SPVM truly wants to end racial profiling, it will rewrite its action plan and lay out a more comprehensive strategy that not only seeks to change the behaviours of police officers, but also strives to reform the very structures and culture within which they work.

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Dr. Anne-Marie Livingstone

Researcher and post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University

Dr. Anne-Marie Livingstone, a Montreal native, is a postdoctoral fellow with the Canada Program at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. She was one of the leaders of the research team of the qualitative study #MTLSansProfilage, which looked into racial profiling by Montreal police.


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