A new Montreal police street check policy aimed at curbing arbitrary and discriminatory stops was described by the police chief as “an important change to the culture,” but critics said it will do little to reduce profiling.
The policy unveiled Wednesday is aimed at ensuring officers stop people based only on observable facts and not on discriminatory motives, such as a person’s race, gender or religion.
At a press conference at police headquarters, police Chief Sylvain Caron said the policy is the first of its kind in Quebec and a way for officers to build better relations with the communities they serve.
“We are not going to stop street checks,” Chief Caron told reporters, referring to the practice that involves police stopping a person and recording their information regardless of whether an offence has been committed.
“But we are very conscious that people’s rights are important.”
Montreal’s police service pledged to introduce a street check policy after a 2019 report by independent researchers indicating people from certain groups were much more likely than others to be stopped by police.
It found that Black and Indigenous Montrealers were between four and five times more likely to be questioned than their white counterparts, with Indigenous women 11 times more likely to be subjected to stops. Those of Arab descent were twice as likely to be stopped by police.
Chief Caron acknowledged the existence of systemic discrimination in the police force, and said the discrepancy was likely owing to unconscious biases among officers.
The policy released Wednesday says police stops must be based “on observable facts and without discriminatory motives.” It directs officers to approach people “without regard to their real or perceived ethnocultural identity, religion, gender, identity, sexual orientation or socio-economic status.”
Street checks must meet the criteria of helping a person in need, preventing incivilities or crimes, collecting information that serves the force’s mission or helping to identify someone who is missing or cited by a warrant.
The policy also states police cannot use the pretext of enforcing a law to stop someone when their real goal is to identify the person and obtain information. Officers must also inform a person why they have been subjected to a street check.
The policy notes that members of the public are not required to answer questions during a street check, but it stops short of forcing police to inform citizens of this fact.
Chief Caron also said the policy does not apply to stops involving people in vehicles, despite many complaints involving cases of “driving while Black.”
He also defended the general practice of street checks, saying they can prevent crime and help officers to give aid to people in need.
The policy was quickly denounced by a prominent civil-rights group and the head of the municipal opposition, who said it would have little effect in curbing discriminatory stops.
Lionel Perez, the head of the Ensemble Montreal party, accused the police of working to “maintain the status quo and give false hope to the racialized population.”
He noted that, in addition to failing to include drivers and to force police to inform citizens of their rights, the new policy doesn’t come with any sanctions for officers who fail to apply it.
And, while police officers will be required to collect detailed data, including the person’s ethnocultural identity, after they stop and question someone, the report will only be required if the information gathered from the stop is considered to be of interest to the police force.
Fo Niemi, the director of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, described the policy as a “huge disappointment,” saying it failed to stand up for human rights.
He said it lacked clear mention of racial profiling and contained problematic language that “opens the door for more abuse.”
In particular, he criticized police for including “preventing incivilities” on a list of justified reasons for a street check, describing the term as “basically a catchword for a policy to allow police intervention against minorities in a low-income neighbourhood.”
Mr. Niemi also criticized the consultation process, noting that many of the groups involved were only contacted last week.
Chief Caron said the policy was not a final document, and would be revised in the future.
However, he said that laying out clear expectations for officers was the first step in creating a framework to discipline officers who violate the rules, which he expects to roll out in the next few months.
“As I said earlier, there’s more to do,” he said. “Is it perfect? No it’s not perfect, but we’ll try to improve, and there will be more actions.”
He said the data collected from the street check reports would be handed over to independent researchers who could suggest further change, while officers would receive coaching on how to apply the policy before it comes into effect this fall.
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