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Montreal police have a long history of doubling down in the face of criticism

Local media is full of baseless claims about officers afraid to intervene out of fear of being deemed racist.

The uprising against police racism and violence sparked by the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last summer has transformed the debate about police reform around the world. In Canada, defunding the police has moved the centre of the debate, winning the support of the majority of urban Canadians and over 70% of Montrealers surveyed last August. While no major reforms have yet been implemented, many commentators are claiming the movement has weakened the morale of police officers and made them afraid to intervene — lest they be charged with racism. These claims, advanced without evidence, follow a historical pattern that ultimately reveals more about police power than the work of anti-racist movements.

Reports about police officers afraid to intervene have been everywhere in the media in recent months. On Radio-Canada, a Université de Montréal criminologist claimed that police officers are often afraid to stop racialized youth, even when they see a gun sticking out of their waistband. This week, both Le Devoir and Journal de Montréal featured articles on the supposed phenomenon of “underpolicing.” In a context of widespread protest and criticism of the police, a retired officer cited in Le Devoir claimed that the police “say they’re not going to put their life, their career and their family in jeopardy … those guys intervene less and less.” These claims were treated as factual, even though no evidence was offered to support them.

This is not the first time such claims have been made in moments when a social movement puts the legitimacy of the police in question. In 1988, in the wake of then-historic protests sparked by the killing of Anthony Griffin, the police union claimed the police had lost their sense of confidence, putting the whole city in danger. “When the police don’t feel secure,” the union head explained, “the whole system is sick.”

In hindsight, we can see these arguments were baseless. Rather than holding back in fear of appearing racist, the police went on the offensive. In 1989, they created the city’s first anti-street gang squad, a squad that focused almost entirely on Haitian youth in its first year and then, when the size of the squad was doubled in 1990, announced they would now “do to the Jamaicans what we did to the Haitians.”

This was also a period in which Montreal police killed more Black men than any time in history. Supposedly afraid to intervene, the police verifiably killed three Black men and allegedly killed two others between 1990 and 1993. While these results clearly refute the claims of the police union, they did not stop the union from making them. In 1993, the head of the union claimed police directors had been telling their troops to “look elsewhere” when a racialized person was observed committing a crime.

Fredy Villanueva’s mother holding a picture of her son on the 10th anniversary of his murder (2018)

In 2008, another wave of protests erupted following the police killing of Fredy Villanueva. Though Villanueva’s killer was never sanctioned and was in fact promoted to the SWAT team in 2013, familiar claims about police confidence were made. A Université de Montréal criminologist argued that police officers were afraid, “and when you’re afraid, you don’t engage with [racialized] youth the same way.” The Journal de Montréal, using the same term in 2008 as this week, argued that “underpolicing” was spreading across the city. The police, the paper argued, preferred to “close their eyes rather than put themselves in a situation that could bring them problems.”

Once again, hindsight allows these claims to be verified and refuted. A 2019 report shows police officers were four times more likely to stop a Black or Indigenous person than a white person between 2014 and 2017, and the number of stops increased 143% in this period. Montreal police also killed six people of colour between 2012 and 2020. Indeed, the present movement to defund the police, and public support for it, would not exist if the police were really reluctant to stop and harm racialized Montrealers.

Recent claims about unpolicing follow an historical pattern. Time after time, a movement to combat police racism and violence emerges, and the police and other commentators argue, without evidence, that the police are now afraid to intervene and we are all in danger as a result. The claims, in other words, are a form of backlash to the mere prospect of changes that would reduce incidents of racism and violence, as defunding the police and reinvesting in community programs promises to do. Perhaps it’s time the media reported them for what they are: a refusal to address, and thus an institutional investment in, the racism and violence that decades of struggle have sought to eliminate. ■

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