Last year, Montreal experienced its lowest level of violence since 1972. This hopeful news is tempered, however, by a year that saw violence perpetrated by both civilians and police that erupted after the police shooting of 18-year-old Freddy Villanueva in Montreal North.
Commander Clement Rose, head of the Montreal Police major crimes division, was quoted in the Gazette attributing the drop to the police’s recent campaign against street gangs. Their campaign includes aggressive enforcement tactics such as Project Eclipse, a special anti-gang unit focused on making arrests, and prevention programs that develop important ties to neighbourhoods where street gangs are a problem.
Victor Henriguez, a spokesperson for Solidarité Montreal Nord, a group of organizations that united after Villanueva’s death, noted a change in police attitude since the riots.
“The feeling of security for the people has increased because we have more officers on the streets,” he said, noting a big push by the police to help the community – including several collaborative workshops.
Still Henriguez felt violence is only one factor in the relations between citizen and police officer.
“I think that, yes, there is less criminality, less murders, things like that; but there is still the problem of citizen confidence [in the system]. The system has a responsibility to maintain its own credibility – and this is where we want change. Because criminality has gone down, but confidence is not back.”
University of Toronto criminologist professor Rosemary Gartner also linked the drop with a larger cultural trend.
“High intensity policies may have a short-term effect on crime, but after a few months it tends to go right back up…. It’s happening across Canada’s major cities. It’s happening in the United States as well. We are able to rule out some things as possible explanations; or say things may contribute…maybe changes in people’s attitudes and beliefs, tolerance for violence,” Gartner said.
“The best evidence of decades of research that looks at what police do suggests that the kinds of marginal changes they make from year to year don’t have a big impact on crime. The causes of crime are wrapped up in all sorts of economic, social, and political factors, and the police can’t get rid of economic inequality, the police can’t get rid of poor schools…. So I’m not criticizing the police for not having an effect on serious crimes: why should we expect them to?”
Henriguez has already felt a positive cultural change in Montreal North.
“Since the events of August, I think we have seen a community that is ready to work to better their own lives, and to have a better future for their children,” said Henriguez.
Montreal Nord Solidarité has organized, among other events, seven dinners with youth to talk about crime, expectations, and employment, as well as workshops and shows – including one showcase of Montreal North youth talent that attracted over 500 people. Some of Solidarité’s projects are funded by the City of Montreal.
“There needs to be teamwork, what happened in Montreal Nord is just a sample of what could happen elsewhere,” Henriguez said.
Gartner also argued for the long-term effects of this sort of community interaction.
“[While] there’s evidence that [community activities] may not have much effect on crime directly, but they may do so indirectly and in the long term in the extent that they get people in the communities interacting with each other more,” she said.
“The more that people in neighbourhoods are interacting with each other, the more responsibility they will feel for their community because they will identify with it more. The more they will want to assist people in their communities. And all these things, which don’t seem like crime prevention efforts, in fact do tend to lower crime rates, but in the long run.”
“I think that to base the analysis only on criminality is maybe not the right way. Criminality is a part of it – yes, the city is safer, but at the same time, we need to think: do the people who were susceptible to criminality have a better future right now?” said Henriguez.
According to the Gazette, there were 29 homicides reported on the island in 2008, the lowest numbers since 1972. This drop is relative to 35 homicides in 2005, 42 in 2006, and 41 in 2007. In addition, there were approximately 59 attempted murders in 2008, compared to 99 in 2007 and 136 in 2006. Of the homicides, seven were related to street-gangs, versus 14 in 2007. There were 39 street-gang related attempted murders in 2008 versus 54 in 2007.
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