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Quebec’s Police Ethics System Favours Cops Over Complainants

"It's hard to convince your young black child that he can trust the police. And I did that. He was convinced. Do you think he trusts them now? Not at all."

by Kristian S. Jebsen
Mar 18 2015, 3:43pm

Banner at a Montreal rally against police brutality. It reads "Who protects us from the police?" Photo via Flickr user Gary Lauzon

In the early hours of November 15, 2013, Dominique Jacobs and her then partner, Shane, awoke to four police officers banging on the door of their South Shore home. As Shane opened the door for the police, an officer barged past him without providing a warrant. He proceeded to look around the kitchen and living room with a flashlight.

Her son Terell, and stepson, Nathan Picard, had been brought home by the police. According Jacobs' official complaint letter to Quebec's Police Ethics Commissioner, the officer asked her for Terell's ID. When handing it to the officer, Jacobs asked him what Terell had done. The officer allegedly responded by saying, "Calm the fuck down." Later, as she was outside, handing the officer a pen and paper in order for him to write down his badge number, she says he told her to "Shut the fuck up, OK?"

The officer informed her that Terell and Nathan were under arrest for jaywalking. She had a hard time believing it was that trivial because the officers were behaving so aggressively. "I thought they had robbed a bank. It was that bad," she said.

The complaint letter alleges that the two youths, both of whom are black, had been crossing a street in Brossard, a suburb of Montreal, when police cruisers pulled up next to them, telling them nothing else other than to put their hands up. As Nathan, 19, asked what they had done wrong, he received a punch to the back of the head and was thrown to the ground. Terell, 17, was threatened with pepper spray should he fail to shut up. They were then placed in a cruiser and driven to their home in Brossard.

After entering the house, the officers began to mock Shane as he was outside asking the police to let Nathan out of the car. "They were just laughing at Shane," asking him "who he [thought he was]," says Jacobs.

Following the episode, Jacobs filed her complaint, claiming that the police had abused their authority, been disrespectful and impolite, and carried out an illegal entry and search of their home.

In late February of this year, they received a response telling them their file was now permanently closed because there was not enough evidence to verify their claims. A letter from the Commissioner's office to the family stated that the police officer had provided a different, and "exculpatory" version of the events of that November night. As a result, "[The Commissioner is] not in a position to demonstrate by preponderance the complainant's allegations."

In the eyes of the Commissioner, it was the police officers' word against theirs.

The experience shared by Jacobs and her sons points to what is seen by many as the systematic inability of the Police Ethics System to hold police officers accountable for their actions, especially concerning issues of racial profiling, which is recognized under the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms as a violation of the right to equal protection from discrimination and harassment.

Created in 1990 as part of the Quebec Police Act, the Police Ethics System is an independent body separated into two parts: the office of the Commissioner, which receives and examines complaints; and the Police Ethics Committee, which is a specialized tribunal enforcing the code of ethics of Quebec cops, and is designed to ensure "the protection of citizens in their relations with police officers."

The Commissioner receives the complaints and after examining the evidence, decides if it should go to investigation, which, if the officer is considered guilty, could see the officer placed in front of the Ethics Committee.

"The system was created to enforce professional conduct...the whole notion is about legislative as well as public oversight of police conduct and practices" says Fo Niemi, head of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations.

But the Police Ethics System is not living up to its responsibilities. The main problem, says Niemi, is the way it was set up; "It doesn't have enough resources, doesn't have enough impartiality, it doesn't have the power to fully carry out its mandate."

What renders the Commissioner particularly toothless in investigating violations of police ethics is Section 192 of the Police Act. This section exists in order to protect officers from self-incrimination, yet it effectively allows the police to not cooperate or speak with the Commissioner during his investigation.

The Police Ethics System deals with civil matters, not criminal, and therefore the idea of self-incrimination is not relevant, reads a report by the Commission des Droits de la Personne et Droits de la Jeunesse, whose mission is to promote and uphold the principles of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

"Without the officers being interviewed during the investigation, and questioned by the investigator, the Commissioner can only rely on documentary evidence and other police or civilian witnesses, if any, to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to cite and bring the officers before the committee" says Niemi.

This means that the Commissioner's fact finding process and final analysis is weakened as it makes it all the more difficult for him to gather enough evidence, rendering the issue one of credibility and not necessarily one of proof.

Louise Letarte, a spokeswoman for the Commissioner's office, says Section 192 doesn't give the police an unfair advantage, "It doesn't give them the right to not work with the inquiry. If the Commissioner doesn't get a version of the event from the police, it doesn't work in their favour...but effectively it's an obstacle that we have to work with."

The Commissioner rarely, if ever, allows for a claim of racial profiling to proceed to investigation, and even less likely is it for a claim to result in a reprimand of a police officer. In the period between the spring of 2011 and the spring of 2014, the Commissioner received 358 complaints of racial profiling, of which only six percent resulted in the citation of an officer.

According to the CRARR, several cases that have a racial profiling component to them see the racial aspect thrown out by the Commissioner while other aspects are retained.

Cases of racial profiling are notoriously difficult to prove because the burden of proof rests upon the intent—whether or not the officer intentionally targeted someone based on their race.

"I agree [that this is problematic], but it's not because we don't make efforts," says Letarte. Nevertheless she agrees that racial profiling should be a higher priority for the Ethics System, "It's a shame, I am disappointed in the decisions of the committee" she says.

There may be a more cynical reason as to why racial profiling does not receive more attention from the Ethics System than it currently does. Niemi says that civil litigation or cases of racial profiling take time and are extremely costly and therefore preferably avoided. "I suspect there is pressure from police community and the Ministry of Public Security not to rock the boat on this issue."

Furthermore, Quebec's police forces are reluctant to share statistics on the number of minorities that are arrested or targeted.

"[The police] don't release data on race of victims because they say they don't have the power to do so, which is hogwash. The reason why they don't want to release the data is because there is an overrepresentation of black individuals in police stops and arrests," he says. A 2009 internal report by the Montreal police department confirmed that almost 40 percent of black youths in certain neighbourhoods of Montreal were stopped and asked for ID. The corresponding statistic for whites was six percent.

CRARR has been asking the Commissioner to adopt policies and release information on how he deals with racial profiling. Its pleas have been met with silence.

VICE's attempts at speaking to the police about the Police Ethics System were unsuccessful, with this reporter being referred to the Commissioner for comment.

There is a strong sentiment that police officers have very little to fear from being investigated because the majority of cases brought before the Commissioner are thrown out. In the years between 2008 and 2014, an average of 57 percent of complaints were closed, meaning they did not even reach the stage of conciliation, a way of resolving the complaint that sees victims meeting with the offending police officers.

Conciliation however, usually doesn't provide much sense of justice, as the officers are paid for their time, are not obliged to speak, and do not suffer any professional consequences. Furthermore, anything mentioned during conciliation cannot be used elsewhere.

Neither are citations, or reprimands of cops very frequent. Between 2008 and 2014, the Commissioner received a total of 11,698 complaints, of which 349, or 2.9 percent, resulted in a citation for the officer or officers targeted by the complaint.

In Montreal, the most diverse city in Quebec, where around a third of the province's complaints are consistently filed, only 2.9 percent of the 4,479 complaints against the Montreal police, or SPVM, ended in a citation for a police officer in the years 2010–2013.

According to Alex Popovic of Coalition Contre la Répression et les Abus Policiers, the lack of accountability for racial profiling and ethical infractions by police officers is only leading to an increase in the amount of cases, "The message from Ethics Commissioner to the wrongdoer is too weak and is being interpreted as an invitation to reproduce and continue this problematic behaviour," he says.

In Montreal, the total number of complaints filed against the SPVM fluctuates, however, the number of police officers cited for ethical violations has decreased steadily from 56 in 2010 to one in 2013.

"The system is designed to enhance professionalism, but if an officer does not recognize he has been unprofessional, what can you do?" says Niemi.

Adding to the weakness of the Police Ethics System is the perceived lack of impartiality. Investigators working for the Commissioner are all former police officers. Although they cannot investigate a unit to which they previously belonged, it is hard for people like Jennifer (she withheld her last name), a member of Coalition Opposé à la Brutalité Policière, to accept that they approach a case without bias.

"I don't think [the Police Ethics System] is the solution. Cops are getting judged by police officers all the fuckin' time and getting nothing done with it... It's fuckin' ridiculous and there are the numbers to prove it."

Despite a 2011 report by the Commission des Droits de la Personne et Droits de la Jeunesse recommending that the Police Ethics System be revised and amended, very little has been either reviewed or changed since its inception in 1990.

Dominique Jacobs believes a revision or a fundamental change to the process needs to be carried out in order to address a dynamic of impunity that has left her and her family feeling unsafe.

"I think they're setting a very bad example, especially for the youth. It's hard to convince your young black child that he can trust the police. And I did that. He was convinced. Do you think he trusts them now? Not at all. We're supposed to be able to rely on them. They're not the ones supposed to be making us feel like we're in danger."