What police reform could look like in Montreal

·7 min read
A protester comes face-to-face with Montreal police at an anti-racism demonstration downtown June 7, 2020. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)
A protester comes face-to-face with Montreal police at an anti-racism demonstration downtown June 7, 2020. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)

The role and funding of Montreal police has been a source of heated debate in the municipal election — but what are the alternatives?

Last year, hundreds marched to demand significant portions of the police budget be reallocated to social programs. Public safety accounted for 18 per cent of the city's total budget for 2021, and all of the municipal parties have taken a stance on policing.

CBC News looked at what other municipalities have done to address violence outside of direct police intervention.

That includes anti-violence units that work with police, addressing gang violence in hospitals, and a new system to respond to mental crises.

Violence reduction units

Megan O'Neill, the associate director of the Scottish Institute for Policing Research at the University of Dundee in Scotland, said one of the problems is how isolated police forces can be from other agencies.

"Policing, certainly in North America, does tend to be seen very much as kind of a silo. Like, 'we are law enforcement!'" she said. "It's that expression: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

But when it comes to social problems, police are not necessarily the best response, even though they're often the ones called first, she explained.

It's that kind of thinking that led to violence reduction units, or VRUs.

The first VRU was created by Glasgow police in the 90s, as a response to what O'Neill called "sky-high" levels of crime. She said the police at the time recognized that their enforcement-only approach wasn't working.

The VRU was assigned to see violence as a public health problem and find solutions, often collaborating with non-police agencies to create programs within communities, she explained.

Following Glasgow's example, the concept of the VRU spread throughout the UK. Municipalities across the country have dedicated VRUs, which mostly operate outside of the police, but are often staffed by former officers and work closely with local law enforcement.

David Gilbride, the victims lead for the Greater Manchester VRU, spent 30 years in neighbourhood policing before joining the unit.

"If you want to solve any issues, from my perspective, it's got to be done with the community. It's got to be led by the community," he said.

"We do enforcement, and that works sometimes, with police out in yellow jackets, but enforcement operations — that is never going to solve the issue. They just temporarily stop it."

Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC
Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC

Interventions in hospitals

One of the initiatives spearheaded by Gilbride and the Manchester VRU is the Navigator program.

The pilot project, which is currently underway at four hospitals in the Manchester area, places youth workers in emergency departments to speak to victims of violent crime. The goal is to break the cycle of violence, assist the victim and prevent potential retaliation.

The current spike in gun violence in Montreal has been attributed to gang rivalries and retaliation. Most of the victims were known to police.

Hannah Barton, who leads the Navigator program in Manchester, said she can see a "massive sense of relief" on some of their faces when they realize the Navigators aren't doctors or nurses.

Sometimes they're suspicious that they work with the police, she said, but they try to break the ice by helping the victim with practical problems in the hospital.

"There was a young person and he didn't have anybody who came to see him," she said. "And he's like, 'I just really need some new clean pants and socks.' And it's like, 'Yeah, sure, we'll go and get you that.'"

From there, they can begin discussing what led them to the hospital and how they can help going forward.

Sometimes, Barton said she can tell the victim is already thinking of payback.

"It's just important that you're like: 'well, if you do that, what do you think is going to happen?'"

She said it's important to remember that these youth are often surrounded by friends who will expect a certain response, and they haven't always heard another perspective.

"There are young people who said back to us, 'you're the only person who has asked me how I am' or 'you're the only person who has checked in on me,'" Barton said.

"If you can provide that alternative, and offer support, then there's a chance that they will make a different choice."

Barton said that they might get calls weeks after first meeting someone in the hospital, asking for help. From there, Barton said they try to address the problems in their life that may have led to the violence, or help them feel safe in their community again.

"We will be whatever they need us to be," Barton said. "What we're saying is: we're here."

Ambulance for mental health

Outside of gun violence, Montreal police have also been widely criticized for how they've responded to a person experiencing a mental health crisis.

In Sweden, a project has made dealing with mental issues outside of the scope of the police entirely.

Known as the Psychiatric Acute Mobility unit, or PAM, the mental health ambulance was launched in Stockholm in 2015. Like any other ambulance, it is dispatched by emergency services, but is specifically staffed to deal with psychiatric emergencies.

Andreas Carlborg, an associate professor at the Karolinska Institute, is one of the people who brought the project to fruition.

He said mental health should be solved through health care, not policing.

"If you have a stroke or a heart attack, you would be dealt with by highly trained staff, even if you are not in a hospital setting," he said. "But if you have an acute mental health care issue, many times you would be dealt with by the police."

"That was the idea behind this. Why should patients with mental health care problems receive worse care?"

Annika Bremer/PAM
Annika Bremer/PAM

Carlborg said that police in Stockholm welcomed the project, because they didn't feel equipped to handle psychiatric problems, and the project freed them up to deal with other issues.

Meanwhile patients with chronic issues, who had previously been handled by police, felt they received better care, he said.

The ambulance initiative started as a pilot project, but before the trial period ended, it was greenlit to become a permanent program. There are now two PAMs serving the Stockholm area.

Carlborg said it took years of work before the ambulance was operating a real-life setting, but felt the results speak for themselves.

"The police use a lot of their time to deal with things that are highly connected to psychiatric problems in society," he said.

"Of course, in an ideal society, I would see the police deal with crime."

What could Montreal do?

Montreal police recently announced a pilot project in the downtown core to send social intervention workers to respond to calls about people in psychological distress in public spaces.

The SPVM described it as an "entirely civilian service" that will run through to the end of the year, with aim of making it a city-wide program.

When reached by CBC News, Montreal police said it also works with social workers in dedicated units to respond to specific issues, such as situations that involve the homeless population or mental health, for example.

However, those calls are first addressed by local patrol officers, who then have to call for the specialized help for it to be dispatched.

A former SPVM training specialist recently testified that the existing de-escalation training for officers is insufficient and has "very little quality control."

Such concerns have led some to feel the SPVM's $679 million budget could be better served elsewhere.

In comparison, the PAM ambulance pilot project had a budget of about $1.1 million Canadian dollars.

However, Megan O'Neill, with the Scottish Institute for Policing Research, said that doesn't mean defunding the police is the answer.

"If you want to have a more engaged, a more proactive and more preventative police force, that means more funding," she said. "But it has to be invested differently."

She said the money needs to be used to work with other agencies and focus on preventative measures and community programs.

"[Police should] be supported and rewarded for doing that," she said. "And not be rewarded for how many arrests you've brought in or many stop and frisks you've done."

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