Commentary  Editorial: Learning from Sunday’s violence

Two-hundred-twenty-one people were arrested at the anti-police brutality protest Sunday. Much of the coverage of the event has centred around the violent actions of protesters, which included damaging public property and businesses, and hurling food and rocks at police in riot gear. While these actions don’t help resolve the issue of police abusing their authority, the police’s actions during and after gave many a clear idea of where the demonstrators’ frustrations come from.

Some of the police’s deplorable actions include denying an arrested 16-year-old access to his parents and to a lawyer, and refusing ambulance paramedics access to a detained man who was having epileptic seizures. A reporter from The Link, Concordia’s independent student newspaper, also attested that he lost feeling in his hands after police wrapped zipcuffs too tightly around his wrists. Even as his wrists bled, an officer refused to loosen the cuffs.

While it’s understood that police can respond automatically when their lives are in danger, it’s unacceptable under any circumstances that they violate the law by denying access to medical assistance, counsel, or the press. This behaviour is especially troubling because the police released journalists from Radio-Canada and the Canadian Press, but arrested those from The Link and the Association des journalistes independent du Québec. The Link reporter wrote that after presenting his credentials to the police’s media relations officer, the officer laughed and said, “everyone wants to be a member of the press when they get caught.”

Independent media deserve the same rights and respect that traditional media receive, in accord with the rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By arresting members of the media, police deny the protesters’ right to have their demonstration covered by a variety of sources. Further, arresting peaceful protesters increases the risk of fewer intending to act peacefully in subsequent years.

While vandalism and violence directed at people who can’t solve the problem is counterproductive on the part of protesters, the police’s actions fed the antagonism at the protest. The level of energy and hostility exhibited by the demonstrators makes it clear that no effective outlet is available to those most affected by police brutality. The violence displayed on both sides of this weekend’s protest shows that any structural or institutional infrastructure in place is simply not working – and both parties need to address the problem together, all year, not on one intense afternoon.

Since 1987, 43 people have been killed by Montreal police, many under questionable circumstances. But not one criminal charge has been laid, not one police officer fired; and the rarely-issued suspensions generally result in the officer being reintegrated into the force. The blue wall of silence from the Police Brotherhood prevails, with police officers involved in shootings allowed a week to get their stories straight before even being interviewed. And who conducts these interviews? Other officers.

Until police forces take responsibility for the misconduct of their staff, it seems unlikely that the sort of reckless behaviour witnessed at Sunday’s protest will stop. Quebec needs to institute an independent civilian body to investigate allegations of criminal acts by police officers. These problems will persist so long as good cops keep protecting bad cops from punishment – though the former group far outnumbers the latter.

These cases should also be processed more quickly: when off-duty police officers beat a newspaper delivery man in Vancouver in January, it took just five days for police to finish enough of their investigation to recommend criminal charges. And Montrealers need a better outlet for airing their grievances with the police; one potential solution could be to establish an ombudsperson position dedicated to fielding citizens’ concerns about police conduct.

Instead of calling for laws banning insults toward them, the police need to clean up their act by respecting the rule of law and the rights of those they police. Town Halls should be held more regularly around the city, and officers must also receive cultural sensitivity training to better integrate into the communities in which they work. Only then will relations between police and the public ever improve.