Over the last year, city leaders and police have repeatedly voiced their concern about a rise in gun crime in Montreal. Two new anti-gun squads have been created, with a combined force of over 40 officers, and various commentators have claimed that increased police funding and more aggressive tactics are needed to combat the problem. A look back at the last year, however, paints a rather different picture and suggests the need for a different approach to urban violence.
Police claims about public security should always be scrutinized, especially in moments when the legitimacy of the police force is in question. This is indeed such a moment. The past year has seen the two largest protests against police racism and violence in the city’s history. Public confidence in the police is at a historic low across Canada. Perhaps more importantly, a majority of Quebecers support defunding the police and reinvesting in community programs, and 73 per cent of Montrealers surveyed last summer support this agenda.
The SPVM has clearly taken notice. In September of last year, SPVM director Sylvain Caron announced his team would do more to promote the good work they were doing in the city. Since then, the SPVM communications department has produced a constant stream of stories about arrests for gun violence and possession, stories that have been widely reported in the media. Stories about shootings have also increased, even when no one was harmed and neither the perpetrator nor the victim could be located. City leaders, including Mayor Valérie Plante, have contributed to this narrative, repeatedly claiming that gun violence has increased dramatically in the last year.
Such claims about increasing gun crime could finally be fact-checked last week, when the SPVM released its annual report for 2020. The report, plus unpublished 2018 data I received from the SPVM, completely disprove the dominant “crisis” narrative. Gun crime, rather than increasing, actually declined 20 per cent between 2018 and 2020. Attempted murders involving a firearm are up 68 per cent, but homicides involving a firearm are down 62 per cent and all but one other category of gun crime is down as well.
Notably, crime related to gun possession and trafficking is down 42 per cent. This contrasts sharply with the crisis narrative that claims the streets are flooded with guns and that new funding — beyond the amount already given to the two anti-gun squads — is desperately needed. Any level of gun crime is, of course, cause for concern. People have been harmed, and several people have been killed. But gun crime should be no more worrisome today than it was two years ago.
In fact, an exaggerated concern about gun crime can cause a whole series of harms. My research on one of the SPVM’s anti-gun squads, known as Quiétude, found the squad disproportionately targeted Black Montrealers. A Black person was 42 times more likely to be arrested and charged by the squad than a white person. Relatively few of these arrests were actually related to guns, and white arrestees were 45 per cent more likely to be charged with a gun crime than Black arrestees. This is the logical result of an exaggerated concern about gun violence, where the perpetrators are largely imagined to be Black.
Rejecting the crisis narrative, importantly, makes it possible to take a longer-term view and address the root causes of violence, which even the SPVM admits requires social investments and not police repression. Community organizations in the northeast of the city, for example, have been calling for increased funding to support marginalized youth for over a decade, calls that have been largely drowned out by stories about gun crime. Reallocating money from the police to organizations like these is a practical way to implement the defund and reinvest agenda that a majority of Montrealers support.