[Éditorial de Brian Myles] Consequences of systemic inertia

The victory won by Joseph-Christopher Luamba, a dignified and tenacious young black student, is a warning shot against the police forces. By dint of maneuvering in the fight against racial profiling, they reap the poor harvest of their labor. The judgment rendered by Michel Yergeau, judge at the Superior Court, is a sanction against their systemic inertia.

Specifically, Judge Yergeau invalidated the provisions of the Criminal Code and the Highway Safety Code allowing police officers to carry out random roadside stops without reasonable grounds. This practice is illegal, because too often used in a context of racial profiling, he decides.

Judge Yergeau has put his finger on the evil that so many columnists and politicians trivialize with a lot of sophistry or crass indifference. Racial profiling « is not just a figment of the imagination ». It’s « a sneaky form of racism […] which weighs heavily on black communities. In memory, this is the most striking and far-reaching legal demonstration of efforts to end racial profiling.

The current case features a young student who asked for nothing for himself, except justice. Mr. Luamba went to court, with the support of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, to denounce the unfair treatment of which he was the victim. In 2019 and 2020, he had been stopped three times by the police while driving, without ever receiving a ticket. In the United States, black communities have come up with a gratingly cynical expression for this phantom offence: driving while black (driving while Black).

Mr. Luamba’s victory somehow belongs to all who have suffered similar treatment. As a general rule, no one gets arrested just for driving a car. No one except black men disproportionately targeted by this practice.

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The heads of police organizations no longer play the ostrich like ten years ago. They recognize that they are grappling with a problem of racial profiling and that these insidious practices are at the root of the public’s distrust of the police.

This is particularly the case with the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM). Its outgoing leader, Sylvain Caron, had the courage to commission a devastating study on the unjustified profiling against black, Arab and First Nations people. He had publicly acknowledged the systemic nature of racism and discrimination. Other police chiefs, like Fady Dagher in Longueuil, share concerns about social justice and the reform of police organizations, to put them at the service of citizens while respecting their full diversity.

Despite declarations, scientific studies, action plans, guides, directives, training, racial profiling remains lurking deep in the unconscious of police organizations, without the police officer himself necessarily being animated racist values. The judgment, while respectful of the police, is an unequivocal condemnation of the efforts made within police organizations to defeat racial profiling. The results are not there.

Judge Yergeau notes that the power of random interception has become for certain patrol officers « a vector, even a safe-conduct » for racial profiling against the black community. Respect for the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he says in one of the most devastating passages of the judgment, cannot be left “trailed by an improbable moment of epiphany for police forces”.

The failure of the fight against racial profiling calls for in-depth reflection on police strategies. Since they cannot manage to get rid of this cancer on their own, they must be provided with the help and guidance of outside advisers (researchers, criminologists, social workers, etc.).

The president of the Association of Quebec Police Directors, Pierre Brochet, already deplores the consequences of this decision on the ability of patrol officers to ensure the safety of the population. Judge Yergeau imposed a six-month delay before his decision took effect to give police forces time to adapt. The case will surely be appealed because of its serious implications. However, it is important to clarify things.

The power of the police to stop motorists remains intact. The intuition or flair of the police, who too often mix skin color with suspicion, simply cannot serve as the basis for an arrest. It seems to us that this is the minimum to be respected in a free and democratic society.

To see in video

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