My initial reaction, after I found out the Montreal police department recently held their fifth edition of “Coffee With a Cop,” was of polite bemusement. A nice gesture in the right direction, I suppose, but akin to applying a Mickey Mouse Band-Aid to stop a gushing wound that’s starting to look mildly gangrenous. We’re going to need more.
Initially launched in California in 2011, the Coffee With a Cop project (aka Café avec un policier in Montreal) quickly spread across the U.S. and Canada and aims to “build and grow trust with the community and remove the stigma that sometimes surrounds law enforcement.”
With all the respect and appreciation that I have for a job that I have no doubt can often be difficult, dangerous and thankless, I also recognize that we have a problem with our local police department. And I’m not sure if chatting over coffee is going to produce any tangible results if the overall SPVM culture doesn’t change, from top to bottom, by better training police officers.
Excessive police violence is a Montreal problem
Those who dismiss these concerns by arguing that excessive police violence is not a uniquely Montreal problem, or that it’s far worse in other cities, are engaged in performative whataboutism. It’s largely irrelevant as an argument because comparing the scope and severity of other cities’ problems is going to do absolutely nothing to reduce or eradicate ours.
We have a problem with excessive police violence, systemic racism and racial profiling, a glaring lack of representation and diversity, and an overall attitude problem when it comes time for cops to interact with citizens or defuse potentially dangerous situations.
And yes, not all cops, yada… yada… yada… but there are enough rotten apples to spoil the bunch. Racial profiling is still widespread and systemic in parts of Montreal like Saint-Michel, where many members of Montreal’s black community live. How many incidents of unjustified and excessive police violence — some of which have resulted in death — against unarmed and often mentally ill people have we heard about in the past few years alone? How many cases of unwarranted police stops, persistent profiling and aggravated assaults at the hands of a police officer? How many complaints for excessive force and abuse of power have been filed with the Quebec Police Ethics Board and the Quebec Human Rights Commission?
We’re all targets
During the Quebec student protests in 2012, there were repeated incidents of excessive violence against people exercising their democratic right to protest. Even journalists, who were there doing nothing more than covering the protests, were roughly handled, injured and often arrested. It got so bad that the Canadian Association of Journalists had to issue a statement expressing their worry about violations of freedom of the press.
And who can forget notorious cases like Stefanie Trudeau, better known as Constable 728, who was suspended for indiscriminately using pepper spray on peaceful protesters, videotaped placing a non-violent man in a chokehold, and who was later recorded referring to the people she arrested as “rats” and “eaters of shit.” I somehow doubt that sitting down and having a soy latte with Stefanie would have done the trick here.
Even someone like me, an average, white cis woman who navigates life fully aware of her white privilege and the benefits that come with it, has one major pet peeve when it comes to Montreal police officers: they never smile or appear friendly.
Lack of approachability is a problem
The overwhelming majority of police officers in this city always look at us as if we’re enemies and not the people they’re paid to serve and protect. While it may be low on the list of concerns involving our law enforcement, it’s an important one because it sets the tone for a terrible relationship that isn’t rooted in any sort of mutual trust and appreciation.
Whether monitoring a crosswalk for jaywalkers, stopping you for a speeding ticket or just monitoring a public area, police officers in this city rarely smile or say hello. I’m not talking about a smug grin, a condescending smirk or inappropriate forced grinning during a dangerous situation. I’m merely talking about the day-to-day demeanour of a person that indicates they’re not walking around with a chip on their shoulder, ready to go off on a power trip at the slightest of provocations. There are no words to convey how vital that very basic of human gestures is in establishing trust in the person who basically walks around with a gun and can legally use it against you.
STM inspectors are in a category all on their own
That attitude problem has also spilled over to Montreal’s metro security. While not technically police officers, STM transit inspectors are a special kind of breed. Every time I see seven or eight of them line up, chests puffed out, legs wide apart, staring down at us hapless commuters as we attempt to exit the metro, I feel uncomfortable and guilty about things I’m not even guilty of. It makes me feel like I’m living in a police state. Not only does it aggravate me that so much public money is spent in assigning so many inspectors to one spot, just so they can catch some kid who jumped the turnstile to save $3.50, their needlessly aggressive attitude pushes me over the edge
I understand that metro users who evade payment cost us a pretty penny annually, and as a taxpayer I appreciate the vigilance. But does it necessitate them acting like they’re guarding Checkpoint Charlie at the height of the Cold War? It’s simply overkill, and it makes them look like failed cop-wannabes with an inferiority complex.
It was only a few months ago that STM inspectors violently tried to arrest a man, throwing him on the ground and hitting him with their batons, while his head was dangerously close to the edge of the platform as another metro train pulled into the station. And all that violence for what? For evading payment and making noise with his basketball? Were those reasons justification for the kind of violence witnessed in that video shot by a passerby?
Is it any wonder that so many Montreal residents are nervous at the city now studying the possibility of giving STM inspectors more authority and more discretionary powers?
Common courtesy and civility before coffee
On the SPVM’s website, the Coffee with a Cop project is described as allowing the Montreal police “to make contact with certain groups who might be reluctant to approach an officer in the street or call their neighbourhood station to ask questions.”
Instead of trying to initiate an artificial two-minute chat in the metro with some random folks ambushed as they’re going to work — no matter how well-intentioned it may be — perhaps question why we’re so reluctant to approach the very people who are sworn to protect us.
I want police officers to be closer to the communities that they serve, and I welcome all attempts. However, I also don’t want projects like these presented as panaceas for what truly ails us.
Coffee’s nice, but courtesy, competence and civil and compassionate conduct are much better. I guarantee you, the results will be as well. ■
See more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.
To read the latest issue of Cult MTL, click here.