Commentary | Editorial: Police by-laws will only worsen community tensions

If anyone understands freedom of expression, it should be the Montreal police; since the summer, they’ve made their frustrations over contract negotiations clear with more red caps and bright camouflage pants than anyone should have to see.

But the police are attempting to restrict citizens’ freedoms with two proposed bylaws: one to prohibit masks at protests, and another to make it illegal to insult police officers. Supposedly, these proposals aim to deter violence and encourage respect for officers, yet these draconian measures blatantly violate freedom of expression and are sure to further deteriorate already precarious relations between police and Montrealers.

The bid to unmask protestors relies on the assumption that a person hiding their face is also committing dubious acts. Not only is this discriminatory, it’s also wholly unnecessary, as it serves to criminalize non-criminal acts. If someone is caught committing a crime while concealing their identity, they can be charged under the Criminal Code. Putting aside potential health risks for winter demonstrations, protestors should have every right to preserve their anonymity, for whatever reason. For example, some protestors may wish to remain anonymous if their employer holds differing political views.

This proposed ban will also make it easier for police to open files on protestors, and will allow them to film protests and arrest participants at a later date. These implications will dissuade individuals from feeling free to protest and will inhibit necessary dissent in our democracy. In addition, we worry that a law regarding face coverings could be used to target religious minorities – a valid concern considering alleged racial profiling in the 2005 shooting of Anas Bennis, who was targeted for donning a skull cap and a djellabah.

Members of the Mayor Tremblay’s Union Montreal party are finding the law too extreme, but police have requested that it be passed before the rowdy annual Protest Against Police Brutality in March. This would effectively shut down the protest, which is intended to combat racial profiling and political repression.

Coincidentally, the law against insulting police is being fast-tracked for a second review in March. The police claim that fining citizens for calling them names will prevent confrontation between officers and rowdy drunks from escalating. We beg to disagree with this flawed logic. If an intoxicated passerby is fined for exercising their right to free speech, the situation is bound to escalate. While the law is meant to encourage respect toward officers, it will more likely serve their reputation.

This law leaves officers too much at liberty to interpret what is and isn’t an insult – apparently calling a cop a pig or a doughnut-eater can be deemed illegal. Essentially, it would give officers the freedom to arrest anyone at any time.

In neighbourhoods with a history of high tensions with the police – Montreal North, for instance, where clashes erupted following the August shooting of Freddy Villanueva – both laws are sure to slow or even worsen the recovery of already damaged relations between citizens and the officers meant to protect them. We urge the city to rethink these measures before their respective reviews in the coming months.

It should be noted that the police are attempting to develop closer, more positive ties to communities dealing with high gang participation through their Project Eclipse program. However, implementing either of these troubling by-laws will set any progress two steps back.