New research finds an alarming Modus Operandi on the part of the Montreal police in response to criticism about systemic racism, and racial profiling in particular.
As an academic researching the history of policing in Montreal, associate professor Ted Rutland, an urban social and cultural geographer who teaches in Concordia’s Faculty of Geography, Planning and Environment, noticed a disturbing pattern.
“Historically, every time the Montreal police force is heavily criticized about racism or racial profiling, they double-down and respond by trying to justify the very actions we’re criticizing them for,” he says.
In 2019, a report from three independent researchers, commissioned by the City of Montreal, found rampant systemic bias in street checks done by the SPVM. They found that Black and Indigenous people were four to five times more likely than white people to be stopped by police. At the time, Police Chief Sylvain Caron said he was “very surprised” by the findings and vowed to take action to improve the situation.
Only, it wasn’t the sort of action most community activists had been asking for.
The creation of an anti-gun squad
Reached by phone Thursday morning, Rutland explained the hunch that led to his research.
“A few months after that damning report came out, on Dec. 7, Montreal police responded by creating an anti-gun squad,” says Rutland. The new squad, dubbed Quiétude, involves around 20 investigators, mostly from the Major Crimes unit of the Organized Crime Division. The same day, police issued a press release, announcing that the new squad was created to deal with “increasing gun violence in the city.”
“I noticed that they started feeding media outlets stories about arrests and if the arrests involved Black people, photos would be included. It created the perception that gun violence had greatly increased in the city.”
Only it hadn’t.
Rutland mentions in his report, made public this week, that police data also concluded gun violence had not increased.
“The number of murders had actually gone down in 2019,” he says. “There were a few more crimes involving guns last year, and gun violence is a real problem, but there was no significant increase. It just looked to me that they were trying to justify their policies and make it look like they were saving us from violence.”
What he did find in his research confirmed his suspicions.
In a meeting with two members of the Montreal Public Security Commission in Feb. 2020, he asked them to demand an overview of arrests, showing the racial background of those arrested by the new squad. They refused, saying there was no reason to believe the squad was operating in a racist fashion.
Rutland filed an access-to-information request in April 2020, asking for the file numbers of all those arrested by the anti-gun squad. He then went about tracking them down. He found that 23 were Black, six were white and two were people of colour. The results of his findings concluded that the anti-gun squad operates more like “an anti-Black squad.”
Black people 42 times more likely to be targeted
The squad has so far disproportionately targeted Black Montrealers – a group that accounts for 74 per cent of arrestees. According to the city’s demographics, Black people only represent seven per cent of the population. “This means, Rutland says, that Black people are 42 times more likely than white people to be stopped by the anti-gun squad.”
More importantly, while the squad is said to be an anti-gun operation, 70 per cent of the charges brought by the squad are not related to guns at all. A total of 54.3 per cent of charges were related to drugs, 14.9 per cent were for violent and non-violent crimes and only 30.9 per cent were for firearms-related crimes. When it came to arrests involving Black Montrealers and other POC arrested by the squad, there were even fewer gun-related charges. Less than 30 per cent for Black people and zero for non-Black people of colour. The squad was far more likely to find guns on white arrestees than Black ones.
During his research, Rutland reached out to several people who had been arrested by the anti-gun squad in Montreal North, an area with a high concentration of Black populations. Many reported having been harassed on the street by the anti-gun squad, and then arrested for minor drug charges later, when police searched their homes and no guns were found.
“The findings are quite consistent with other racist police policies, like the ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ program in NYC,” says Rutland. “Their own evidence suggests that they’re not doing their jobs properly.”
The Stop-and-Frisk program became the subject of a racial profiling controversy when it was found that 90 per cent of those stopped in 2017 were African-American or Latino, mostly aged 14-24. Seventy per cent of those arrested were later found to be innocent. The claim made by the NYC police department that the program contributed to a decline in the city’s crime rate was also later disproven.
A lack of accountability persists
Rutland isn’t surprised by his findings. His previous research on police racism has led him to qualify the police force as “historically being a systemically racist institution since their creation.” According to him, the police responding to criticism of racist policing by launching new operations that focus on crimes that can be associated with people of colour is their Modus Operandi.
“When we ask for reforms, they respond with a new initiative that doesn’t solve the problem,” he says. “They aren’t accountable to the public and this disregard for public criticism runs through the force, from top to bottom, from the rank-and-file police officers who don’t like to be called racist, to the Police Brotherhood.”
This is one of the many reasons why community organizers want to see more investments in social programs instead.
“To make Black Lives Matter we need to reimagine public safety,” says Marlihan Lopez, Coordinator for the Simone de Beauvoir Institute and a member of the Defund the Police Coalition. “Neighbourhoods and boroughs with an overrepresentation of racialized communities are often deserts in terms of health and social services. Residents who want safety and security are told that police are the only ones that can provide it, despite overwhelming evidence that often suggests the contrary.”
The fact that the Defund the Police Movement, which aims to reduce the size of the police and re-allocate some of their budget in non-punitive social programs, is gaining momentum and gaining in popularity with the average citizen gives Rutland hope.
“If you think about it, the police force is a pretty medieval way of dealing with people who do some kind of harm, in that it only seeks to punish,” he says. “We need to find a better way of addressing social ills.”
“We owe a lot to Black and Indigenous communities, communities that are the least well-served by the police force, for explaining to all of us that we can do better.”
On a city-wide scale, Rutland hopes to see a transfer of resources away from the police towards people who can better safeguard the community. In Montreal North, especially, he wants to see community members empowered and street workers hired to help people avoid getting caught in the circle of violence. He believes community leaders are better positioned to know what is needed there.
“Let’s divest from public safety models that perpetuate violence and harm in our communities,” adds Lopez, “and let’s find the courage to imagine and invest in economies of care that prioritize the health and social-being of our communities.”
Denial of systemic racism and racial profiling
After the report was released Thursday morning, the Montreal police department issued a statement about its anti-gun squad. It insisted that “its officers, including the Quiétude squad, conduct investigations ‘by using proven methods, without discrimination and without racism.’”
Quebec Premier François Legault, who continues to deny that systemic racism exists in Quebec, was also asked about the report. He quickly alluded to Rutland’s membership in the Anti-Carceral Group, a prisoners’ rights organization, in essence dismissing his findings as biased, even though the findings clearly show disproportionate arrests of Black people.
While Rutland doesn’t deny that gun violence is a problem in Montreal and that we have issues to work on, he also believes that the SPVM press relations team has unnecessarily created a climate of fear. According to him, the police have created a perception that citizens are in graver danger than they were a year ago, and formed squads that disproportionately target communities of colour, even though the numbers simply don’t confirm such a reality or necessitate such action.
“I would love for there to be an easy solution,” he says. “People love easy solutions. Just have the police arrest the bad guys, right? But that’s not how it works… We need to be willing to have hard, creative discussions about how we can keep our communities safe.” ■
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