Cops target blacks, study finds

MONTREAL – Black Montrealers are more than four times as likely as whites to be questioned by police and 21/2 times as likely to be arrested, a public hearing on racial profiling was told yesterday.

And black youths between age 12 and 18 are more than twice as likely to be arrested as young whites, said Christopher McAll, a professor of sociology at the Université de Montréal.

McAll, who is also scientific director of the Montreal Research Centre on Social Inequalities and Discrimination, unveiled results of a study on blacks in the youth justice system on the first day of hearings by the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission.

McAll and co-author Léonel Bernard combed through court records for 1,518 youths arrested and charged with an offence on the island of Montreal in 2001 to sketch a portrait of young blacks in the criminal justice system.

The picture that emerges is one of much closer police scrutiny of young blacks than of young whites, McAll said: "There is an appearance of over-surveillance of young blacks."

For example, black youths were seven times as likely as white teens to be arrested for smoking marijuana or selling drugs after police spotted them doing so in a public place.

The study didn’t find a single case of a white youth charged with a drug offence after being spotted by police, McAll said.

However, in cases where youths were charged with drug offences after a police investigation or raid, young whites were more likely to be arrested, the study found.

Young blacks were also more subject to being charged with breaking the conditions of their probation, McAll said. For example, four youths were stopped for riding their bicycles at night without a light. One of them was charged with breaking his curfew. Such cases of violating probation accounted for 20 per cent of charges against young blacks.

The study proves police are not applying the law equitably, McAll said.

"They have the obligation to ensure that the law is respected, but they are putting themselves above the law," he charged.

"The question is, who is going to police the police?" he added.

McAll said police statistics from 2006-07 confirm that Montreal blacks continue to be more likely to be questioned and arrested than whites.

Blacks of all ages represented seven per cent of the population of Montreal Island in 2006-07 but accounted for 17.4 per cent of arrests, McAll said.

In districts with few black residents, like Outremont, Plateau Mont Royal and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, blacks of all ages were seven to 11 times more likely to be questioned than whites, McAll said.

Black teens are also more than twice as likely to be arrested for shoplifting or petty theft, McAll’s study found.

Typically, police make such arrests after a security guard observes black youths stealing something, McAll said.

Such arrests are justified, McAll acknowledged. However, he suggested that police and security guards do not watch white teens as closely as black youths.

Young blacks were more than five times as likely as young whites to be arrested for stealing after having been observed by security staff, the study found.

Crime statistics do not justify the high-profile police war on street gangs, McAll charged.

"In 2009, only 1.6 per cent of criminal activity was caused by street gangs, but the police has made them its priority," he said.

Media reports about street gangs have fuelled fear and exclusion of blacks, he said.

Racial profiling – defined as unjustified actions by authority figures toward members of a certain race, ethnic group or religion – further marginalizes underprivileged groups, McAll said. Taken to an extreme, that exclusion can lead to violence like the 2005 riots in the Paris suburbs, he said.

Montreal isn’t there yet, McAll said. But he added: "It’s clear we are going in that direction."

Later, the Black Coalition of Quebec complained of arbitrary arrests and mistreatment.

Coalition president Dan Philips said the more community members who are arrested stand up for their rights, the more they are victimized.

Philips charged the rules of the police ethics commission place an unfair burden on victims to prove their case. The commission has never upheld a complaint of racial profiling.

Philips said sensitivity training for police is ineffective and offered his group’s services to teach officers respect for minorities.

He also called for support to help victims of profiling prepare cases and for an outside watchdog to deal with complaints of profiling by police.

Montreal Mayor GÈrald Tremblay will appear before the hearing on behalf of police, the transit authority and the city on June 9.

Today, the Ligue des droits et libertés, community groups in LaSalle and Little Burgundy, and Montreal North filmmaker Ronald Boisrond will speak at the hearings at the Grande Bibliothèque, which are open to the public.

The rights commission has received more than 100 complaints of racial profiling since 2005. Its tribunal has never ruled on a case’s merits. Rights advocates complain that lawyers representing police use legal tactics to thwart complaints.

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