Can city hall hold Montreal police accountable?

City councillor in charge of police oversight dishes on debating body cams, disarming police and ending racial profiling
Photo: Montreal police look on during 2014 march against police brutality. (blogocram / Flickr)
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Projet Montréal inherited a police department rotting from the head down when it took the reins at city hall four years ago.

Under Chief Philippe Pichet, Montreal’s finest ran roughshod over democratic norms, and the internal affairs division refused to pursue criminal allegations against officers while allegedly fabricating evidence against whistleblowers within its ranks.

Meanwhile, two public inquiries added further embarrassment to the department. The Chamberland Commission detailed how police had been instructed to spy on journalists critical of Mayor Denis Coderre, while the Bouchard Report delved into a culture of intimidation and corruption within internal affairs.

Within months of Projet’s 2017 election victory, Pichet was suspended. He contested the suspension in court but ultimately resigned to avoid further humiliation.

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Four years and one global pandemic later, the department is facing a new set of crises. After years of failed reforms and strained relations between the police and Montreal’s communities of colour, the conversation has evolved from “reform the police” to “defund the police.”

There may be no better example of that strain than the case of Mamadi Fara Camara, who was falsely imprisoned for the attempted murder of a police officer last winter. After spending a week in jail with no arraignment, evidence from the scene exonerated Camara, who had the misfortune of sharing one characteristic with the real suspect: they were both Black men.

“The department has also recognized the systemic nature of racism, including in the police itself, which is more than we can say for our National Assembly.”

Projet has struggled to implement the kinds of changes that would build trust between the department and people of colour. Early in its mandate the administration rejected calls for officers to wear body cameras, and a recent suggestion from within the party that the city should oversee a pilot project that would disarm certain officers was rejected by Mayor Valérie Plante last month.

I recently caught up with Projet Montréal city councillor Alexander Norris, who oversees the Public Security Commission and is in charge of civilian oversight of policing in the city, to talk about the future of policing in Montreal.

Christopher Curtis: I can’t remember a time in North American history where there’s been so much momentum behind defunding the police. It feels like things have gotten so bad that we’re no longer talking about reform anymore, we’re talking about whether we even need the police on our streets.

Alexander Norris: It has been a particularly tumultuous period. Even prior to the murder of George Floyd, police-citizen relations were very much on our radar. When we took office it was a tumultuous period for the Montreal police. The results of an inquiry into the Montreal police had been made public, repudiating the senior leadership of the department and the mismanagement of the internal affairs division.

The internal affairs division, far from being a fair-minded unit that sought to root out wrongdoing in the police force, had been used as a cudgel against those who fell out of favour with senior police leadership. Other officers, there wasn’t appropriate follow-up on serious allegations.

Does any one incident stand out?

Well, there were a number of cases, it’s in the Bouchard Report.…

I just mean to you as a former journalist, as a city councillor, as the person in charge of civilian oversight of the police.

Yeah, of course. It was a very damning report. Senior leadership of the police force had not exercised its due diligence in overseeing this unit. It needed to be rebuilt from top to bottom. We had only just been elected and we get this report on our desks and we became the first administration in the city’s history to receive the police chief and recommend he be removed from his position. He then resigned before he could be removed. It was a dramatic situation. We issued ultimately a unanimous report — even the official opposition signed off on it.

There was also the espionage scandal, where it was revealed police were spying on journalists to try to figure out who their sources were on damaging stories.

That created a major crisis of confidence in the police force. (La Presse columnist) Patrick Lagacé had been spied upon, Vincent Larouche, a number of prominent journalists had been put under surveillance after Mayor Coderre complained to the police chief about questions he was asked by reporters. A commission of inquiry was held, at which I testified, at which Mayor Coderre testified, where the police testified. Coderre acknowledged that he had torn a strip off the police chief, really like intimidation, the mayor has considerable power here. That was a huge crisis.

That was the situation the Montreal police were in when we took office. But furthermore, there was the longstanding issue of racial and social profiling. It was about a decade ago that the province recommended police track data on who gets stopped by police and hire expert researchers in order to see — more scientifically — if there were racial biases. It wasn’t until we took office that the city mandated this research to be done by a group of independent researchers.

The results were pretty damning. Black people were four times more likely to be stopped by police than whites, Indigenous people were 4.2 times more likely.…

It’s even worse than that for Indigenous women. That all happened because, unlike Mayor Gérald Tremblay and Mayor Coderre, our administration mandated the police to carry out that study. And the results of that study were presented before the standing committee and it was quite an emotional meeting.

Based on that, and based on the recommendations of the independent researchers, the Montreal police developed the first-ever street check policy in the province of Quebec. And rather than just say, “Oh that’s fine” and rubber-stamp it as a previous administration would have done, my standing committee held public consultations on the issue.

Even though we were in the midst of a pandemic, we held lengthy deliberations and debated it, we received a number of briefs from citizens and civil society groups, we gathered data from other provinces.

“We’ve changed the culture of police oversight. The era of rubber-stamping decisions has been brought to an end.”

We were able to — it was no small feat — to come up with a series of recommendations that we made, that the opposition signed off on and that the representative from the provincial government signed on to. Unlike any other commission at city hall, we’re mandated by law to have a representative of the provincial government sitting with us.

Shortly after we were elected, I announced that we would be holding regular public meetings, that the era of the closed-door meeting was over, that we would be stepping up our game when it comes to police oversight. We began holding regular public meetings, including on contentious issues that were a matter of public debate and had been swept under the rug by previous administrations. They didn’t want to see clashes between police and citizens on television.

Under provincial law, the Public Security Commission is supposed to make two public presentations a year. Under previous administrations, there were some years where that very low bar wasn’t met. We passed a bylaw that said, “No, we must have at least 10 public meetings a year.” We met and surpassed that target until the pandemic hit. We’re still holding public meetings this year, online.

We’ve changed the culture of police oversight. The era of rubber-stamping decisions has been brought to an end. Often the expressions of dissatisfaction that one hears from civil society groups, it happened at a public meeting. You didn’t hear about it before because the meetings were private. So, it’s a significant political risk we took. It is easier, politically, to keep these questions private. But it doesn’t do a service to society or to the police for that matter.

When the city presented its pilot project on body cameras a few years back, it concluded there isn’t a correlation between officers wearing the devices and a reduction in misconduct.

Body cameras seem like a quick fix and that’s how they’re sold, but it has to be done right for it to have a positive impact on relations between police and citizens and use of force.

Is one of those concerns that an officer can decide when to turn the camera on and off?

Yeah. In the pilot project, which started under the Coderre administration, there was quite a lengthy protocol about when the cameras can be activated and when they can be turned off. It was left up to the officer to apply that criteria. What resulted from that was that in 83 per cent of cases, the footage obtained was fragmentary. That’s a big problem. If you only get a fraction of what happened, it may actually lead to more questions than answers.

Now, Quebec is going ahead with its own pilot project. It will attempt to resolve some of the challenges that the pilot project identified. The Montreal police will assist the province with this new initiative. We see considerable potential for body cameras to improve relations between citizens and officers and offer great transparency of the work that officers do. But it has to be done right.

One is, if we’re going to have a general rollout of body cameras, the courts need to be equipped to handle all this data. There are privacy rights to address — you don’t want to place victims of crimes in a more vulnerable state. If a person has just survived a sexual assault, for instance, you don’t necessarily want to come in with your camera running. It creates a dilemma.

A lot of politicians portray this as a quick fix but the research from the United States presents a mixed picture. It hasn’t solved the violence problem. In some studies it hasn’t impacted use of force or citizens’ trust of police.

If we’re going to make this investment, we need to make sure we’ll get the critical footage we need. What we saw in the pilot project was that all too often the most important footage had not been filmed. It’s a complex issue.

Once police record an incident, it becomes subject to access-to-information requests. We need to make sure that the people not involved in the crime have their faces blurred, we need to make sure all that data can be stored somewhere. It’s a lot of work.

If you look at provincial and federal lobbying records, the big push for body camera legislation is coming from Axion, an American company that manufactures the devices. What do you know about Axion’s use of facial recognition software or, for that matter, the Montreal police’s?

We were mandated by city council to look into this. It’s a matter of public record that the Montreal police did not want to answer whether it uses or would use facial recognition software. I had an exchange with the director of the police force reminding him he has a duty to report to us so we can fulfil our oversight role. Mr. Caron said that the Montreal police does not use facial recognition software but would not exclude — under circumscribed circumstances — using this to solve a crime.

Facial recognition software represents considerable potential in solving crimes but there are serious drawbacks. Privacy rights, for one. Also, the technology can yield false positives when identifying people with darker skin.

The Public Security Commission has been given a mandate to look into this issue. We know that the privacy commissioners of provinces, territories and on the federal level are drafting guidelines for the use of facial recognition software. We’re waiting to see what they propose but we’re also pursuing the mandate in parallel.

The police, I think their understanding of democracy and transparency is different than the average citizen’s. The default is to sort of tell us as little as possible and trust that they’ll do the right thing. But we want a role in shaping the departments that serve us and we need information to make the right decisions.

Typically police forces emphasize the need to have as little political meddling as possible in their operational affairs. And it’s quite true that we don’t want politicians inserting themselves into investigations.

Are you referring to Denis Coderre?

We did see that with Coderre. When he was upset about questions he was being asked by journalists, his reflex was to call the police chief. That’s completely out of line. But you can’t evoke the need to avoid meddling to avoid oversight. The police can’t be a force unto itself. It remains answerable to society as a whole via its duly elected representatives.

We’re hearing calls, from across North America, to take armed police officers off the streets aside from in very specific circumstances. Mayor Plante expressed support for a pilot project that would see some officers patrol without their service weapons. She’s since walked that back.

There was a motion that was adopted, at the Projet Montréal party convention, to have a pilot project in which police officers would be unarmed. The mayor has made quite clear that there’s no question of disarming the police as a whole. We’re experiencing a considerable uptick in gun crime. There’s a great deal of concern over that. The number of handguns circulating in Canadian society has roughly doubled in the last decade. There are more than a million guns circulating and the number is growing.

“An across-the-board disarming of the police is not on the table.”

We live right next to the country where roughly half of all firearms in the world can be found. The North American context is way different than what you might be able to accomplish in Great Britain, for example.

Any initiative of that type would be done in cooperation with the Montreal police. An across-the-board disarming of the police is not on the table. We’re open to exploring the idea of a pilot project but under tightly circumscribed circumstances.

There are jurisdictions in the United States that have taken armed police out of the business of traffic stops. The idea is it eliminates the possibility that an officer would draw their pistol during a routine stop. You just enforce traffic laws with photo radar and other means.

Photo radar is something that’s regulated by the province and there’s limited scope, right now, to what we can do in that regard. But it’s something we can explore. But I mean, a lot of people die or are seriously injured in traffic accidents because of drivers who are reckless.

We do need policing on our roads. We can’t have a free-for-all on our roads, it’s dangerous. I do agree that we could make better use of technology. You have to understand it’s a much more heavily armed society in the United States so there’s a higher chance a traffic stop will go wrong there.

When someone is in the midst of a mental health crisis, is it necessary to send armed police to the scene? I remember, maybe in 2011, there were at least a half-dozen fatal shootings where officers had been dispatched to intervene when someone was having an episode. It forced the department to expand mental health training, but is that enough?

It was at our request that the department began systematically training officers on de-escalation techniques. A substantial number of officers have received that training and we’ll continue to insist on it. Policing is a balance; there’s some repression that’s required but it can’t be based on that. There has to be communication, there has to be de-escalation, there has to be prevention.

We also submitted a brief to the provincial government — the provincial government is carrying out a consultation on the future of policing — we emphasized the need for more psychosocial workers who can intervene more effectively with people experiencing a crisis.

If someone sees a person in crisis, do police necessarily have to be the answer? Would you have to go through the province to come up with an alternative like calling an emergency street worker?

Yes, healthcare is a provincial responsibility so it is their jurisdiction. Too often police are the ones responding to a crisis that would be better served if a social worker or an intervention worker showed up. Sometimes police officers can reinforce the feeling of crisis, of being besieged.…

Well there was that situation in Cabot Square where an Inuit woman had expressed suicidal thoughts and held a broken bottle she was going to use to harm herself. I think they dispatched 15 or 16 police cars to intervene and things escalated dramatically before winding down again.

I can’t speak to that case but generally speaking it’s not always the best approach. But because successive provincial governments have abdicated their responsibilities to help people with mental health problems and just tossed them out onto the street, the police force is the only body that’s able to intervene. And that’s not a healthy situation.

There is a psychosocial unit in the police force. It does good work. There are mixed units as well where there are social workers who work alongside police officers to deal with vulnerable populations. We want to extend those initiatives, but the province has to step up to the plate as well and reinvest in mental health resources.

When we talk about root causes, there’s been a significant increase in homelessness since the pandemic started. Looking forward, what can be done to make sure there are fewer confrontations between police and homeless people?

We need social workers and street workers who are familiar with the homeless community and aren’t necessarily seen as a threat. We already have a team, on the police force, that helps put homeless people in touch with resources instead of repressing them and they do great work.

Would you consider expanding that team?

Of course. But you have to remember that policing budgets are already considerable. We spend about $1 billion a year on policing and the fire department each year. Certainly, more investment in that area is something we’re in favour of. But again, the province needs to step up to the plate and invest more in services for the homeless. Street workers, social housing, long-term solutions.

I mean, during the pandemic there was the issue of the COVID-19 curfew being applied to homeless people. The mayor asked the provincial government to exempt homeless people from the curfew but they refused. It wasn’t until the courts struck it down that the province ultimately relented. That was an absurd situation. It was making people who were already vulnerable, more vulnerable.

For situations like the homeless encampment on Notre Dame St. last year, where police were called to dismantle it — those were jarring images. What do you say to people who saw that and said it’s an inappropriate use of police resources?

Well, it was something that was on order from the fire chief. There had already been fires, there were propane tanks around and it was a safety hazard. It wasn’t a political decision, it was the fire chief. The situation had to end so the camp was dismantled. The idea was to accompany people and ensure they had access to resources.

I know there’s a debate about that, that some people prefer to sleep rough than go into shelters, but when you have a significant concentration of homeless people in tents and there have been fires, well I think it’s understandable why that decision was made.

We’ve done a lot. We’ve requisitioned hotels to create sleeping spaces for homeless people. A whole new wing at the old Royal Victoria Hospital was opened up. We’ve acted to protect rooming houses in the urban planning bylaws so they’re not gutted and turned into private housing. Those are significant steps.

What do you make about the mayor’s response to the Camara situation? She called it a clearcut case of racial profiling. Police union chief Yves Francoeur called her response “extremely deplorable.” What did you think of it?

I think the thrust of it was that we need an independent party to get to the bottom of what happened with Camara and the province did just that. It was a reasonable demand in the circumstances and the fact that the province agrees signals that there was a need to reassure the public. It was a responsible position to take.

For years, the police department resisted any suggestion of racial profiling in their ranks.

Provincially, it took decades to see civilian oversight of officer involved shootings and even that has been a flawed process. Do you see a willingness, on the part of the department, for policing to change?

Absolutely. The police chief and the department know the culture needs to change. The police have cooperated with our street check policy, the Montreal police launched — just this week — quite an impressive series of initiatives to recruit minority groups in their ranks. There are about 13 per cent of police in the department that are racial minorities and there is still a ways to go before it truly represents the diversity in the city, but there have been some strides made in the past and there’s a big push now. The department has also recognized the systemic nature of racism, including in the police itself, which is more than we can say for our National Assembly. There is a genuine desire to modernize and change the image and culture of the Montreal police department. There are caring and sensitive people in the department. There have been cases of brutality and profiling that we’re all aware of, but there are officers who do terrific work in the community and who deserve our support as well.

If you get another mandate, what are some quantifiable goals you’d like to see the police attain?

We want to see a measurable reduction in and eventual elimination of racial and social profiling. We want to be rigorous in our management of police budgets. We want to pursue the efforts we’ve been making to ensure there’s more credible oversight. And there are a whole series of challenges. The issue of body cameras, if it’s done right, it can be a useful tool. We want to continue an emphasis on de-escalation and address the issue of gun violence. Not with more repression but with better investigative efforts and more help with the federal government.

We are not satisfied with the gun control legislation that’s been proposed by the federal government. We need a complete ban on handguns and assault weapon ownership in Canada.

Montreal’s policing budget has increased by over 50 per cent in the past 20 years. One of the central demands of the defund the police movement is for those budgets to be reduced and reallocated. Is that feasible in this city?

We want to exercise rigorous control over police budgets. Under our administration, it has only increased to match inflation. We need the province to do its part and improve funding for mental health services. For sure, if we see that, resources could be devoted to that instead of police intervening in mental health crises. It’s conceivable but it has to be done right.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet. Sign up below for weekly newsletters from the front lines of journalism.
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