Posted on August 10, 2010

Claims of Racial Bias Dog Montreal Police

Sean Gordon, Globe and Mail, August 9, 2010

Montreal’s police force is on the defensive over a leaked internal report that suggests it is engaging in widespread racial profiling.

The force has been facing mounting pressure from visible minority groups over anecdotal reports of racial bias.

Research compiled by a criminologist at the Service de police de la ville de Montreal (SPVM) indicates nearly 40 per cent of black youths in the boroughs of Montreal-North and St-Michel were stopped at least once and asked for identification between 2006 and 2007, relative to 6 per cent for their white peers.

A survey of 163,000 “contact reports” also showed sharp increases (126 per cent in one borough) in the numbers of black people submitting to police checks between 2001 and 2007 as anti-gang crackdowns ramped up.

The draft report, obtained by La Presse, was completed in March of 2009 and uses words like “alarming” to describe its conclusions. The document was shelved because of what police said were flaws in methodology.

“I asked [criminologist] Mathieu [Charest] to challenge us, to see if he could find data that would make us look bad . . . these figures have to be considered in the proper context,” said deputy police chief Jean-François Pelletier, who ordered the report after the 2008 riots that followed the shooting death of teenager Fredy Villanueva of at the hands of a police officer.

But Mr. Pelletier ultimately decided not to present the analysis to his superiors or make it public because contact reports provide an incomplete statistical picture. Contact reports detail specific incidents like traffic stops–Mr. Pelletier said roughly 25,000 are filed per year out of more than a million police interventions, so they represent a limited sample. He also said it stands to reason members of “groups that are over-represented in gangs” would be stopped more frequently; large numbers of street-gang members and their acolytes are of Haitian descent.

“We’re not perfect, but we’re not nearly as bad as these numbers would suggest.” Mr. Pelletier said, adding that Montreal’s police force has had a program in place to educate officers against the perils of profiling for three years.

Regardless, these are difficult times for Montreal’s police.

The community of Montreal-North remains bitter as it marks the second anniversary of Mr. Villaneuva’s death, the force’s chief recently quit, and the clamour from minority groups denouncing racial profiling is growing louder.

Last week, it emerged that a black motorist filed complaints to Quebec’s Human Rights Commission and police ethics commissioner, alleging he was needlessly pulled over by a suburban police force four times in a week last summer.

According to the complaint, a police report indicates he was targeted at least in part because a licence-plate check revealed his surname, Debellefeuille “sounds like a Québecois name, and not the name of someone of another origin.”

Still, some experts warn the quantifying of racial bias is a tricky business.

In a forthcoming article in the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Ottawa criminology professor Ronald Melchers’ analysis of federal statistical data demonstrates “visible minority Canadians are less likely than non-visible minority Canadians to come into contact with police for any reason . . . and no more likely to report being arrested.”

That’s not likely to satisfy the Montreal police’s most vocal critics.

“It should be clear to every person with common sense that the police in Montreal targets black people disproportionately and unfairly,” Fo Niemi, executive director of Quebec’s Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, said in an e-mail.

Community activists in the city’s north end–where several of Montreal’s violent street gangs are based–also suggest the report is evidence of competing policing philosophies.

“This is only confirming what we already know,” said Marjorie Villefranche, program director of Maison d’Haiti, a community organization based in St-Michel. “We work a lot with the district commanders, they know everybody, who presents a problem and who doesn’t. But with Eclipse (an anti-gang task force) they just go in and hassle everyone. These approaches are in fundamental conflict, they can’t co-exist.”