Cut down on street checks and make ban on racial profiling explicit, Montreal officials tell SPVM

·3 min read
Concerns about 'driving while Black' were raised repeatedly during the public consultations that informed the commission's recommendations. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Concerns about 'driving while Black' were raised repeatedly during the public consultations that informed the commission's recommendations. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Elected officials in Montreal are calling on the city's police force, the SPVM, to reduce the number of street checks its officers are conducting, as part of an effort to cut down on racial profiling.

The request is among several recommendations issued Friday by City Hall's public security commission that are aimed at reforming how police interact with minority communities.

The SPVM had taken steps of its own over the summer to address concerns about racial profiling by its officers. But the guidelines handed down Friday push the force to go further.

In particular, the commission wants the force to make it explicit that stopping people because of their race is prohibited.

And it questioned why the number of police checks have increased in recent years when crime rates have remained relatively stable.

The commission also recommended changes to the criteria that allow police to stop and gather information from individuals.

Montreal Police chief Sylvain Caron revised the force's street check policy this summer following evidence of widespread racial profiling.
Montreal Police chief Sylvain Caron revised the force's street check policy this summer following evidence of widespread racial profiling.

Under the current rules, Montreal police are allowed to conduct a check (an interpellation in French) for the following reasons: to help someone in need, prevent incivilities, prevent a crime, identify someone being sought under a warrant or in order to gather information relevant to the SPVM's mission.

The recommendations, which were based in part on public consultations, note that many community groups worry the wording of these criteria is too vague and open to abuse.

They call on police to gather better data on the race of people who are stopped and remove "prevention of incivilities" as a criteria altogether.

Addressing 'driving while Black'

Other recommendations are directed at ending the related issue of "driving while Black," an expression that refers to the frequency which Black drivers are pulled over by police for seemingly spurious reasons.

Responsibility for the highway safety code falls to the provincial government, a representative of which sits on the public security commission.

The commission called on the Quebec government to gather more data on the race of drivers who are pulled over by police, and have that data reviewed by independent experts.

It also calls on the provincial government to implement additional controls on who can access the personal information that is gathered during police checks.

That information is kept in a database that is accessible to officers across the province for anywhere between seven and 30 years.

Next steps

It falls to Montreal's executive committee to take action on the 25 recommendations that were made public Friday. That body has the power to insist on changes to police policy.

Caroline Bourgeois, the executive committee member responsible for public security, said she welcomed the recommendations with "much openness" and promised a formal response soon.

The recommendations, she said in a statement, "echo the concerns expressed by citizens and organization who want to see an end to street checks and racial profiling."

A person cycles by graffiti reading ‘Defund the SPVM’ (Montreal Police Department) in Montreal, Sunday, Aug 30, 2020.
A person cycles by graffiti reading ‘Defund the SPVM’ (Montreal Police Department) in Montreal, Sunday, Aug 30, 2020.

While several community groups welcomed the recommendations, they also acknowledged that concerns remain about whether they will be implemented.

"We're taking it in good confidence and in good faith, but we are still going to be very strong on these matters to make sure that what the community deserves, and the respect that the community deserves, is in place," Sharon Nelson, a spokesperson for the Jamaica Association of Montreal, said at a news conference Friday.

The recommendations appeared thorough, said Alain Babineau, a former advisor with the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, where he often worked with victims of racial profiling.

But in order for new directives to make a difference, he added, there has to be buy-in from police. "One of the things that I think we have to remember is that you can't legislate goodwill," said Babineau, himself a former RCMP officer.

In a brief statement, released Friday afternoon, the SPVM said it was in the process of analyzing the recommendations.