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Beyond Body Cams: The SPVM Must Be Held Accountable

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Between May 2016 and April 2017, the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) implemented a policy to equip 78 police officers with body cameras. This was an attempt to improve police accountability following public outcry over numerous cases of police brutality and murder. On February 1, almost a year later, the SPVM’s final report advised against equipping police officers with body cameras. Dan Philip, president of the Black Coalition of Quebec, condemned the SPVM’s final report, stating, “when there are no body cameras, the injustices continue […] and there is no recourse, because it will be the word of the police against the word of the victim – and we know which one will carry.”

The SPVM’s report states that the cost was not worth the results. Only four per cent of the annual operating budget is needed to implement the body camera program. Regardless, the cost of implementing accountability measures should not matter, especially when police have been so readily acquitted of, or not even charged for, murdering racialized people, queer people, and people with disabilities. We should not, and cannot, stop at body cameras alone. It is still extremely rare for officers to be convicted of their crimes, even when video evidence proves their guilt. While accountability measures and sensitivity trainings are a first step, we need to push further and continuously advocate for the abolition of the police altogether.

The recommendation of having police officers wear portable cameras was made in June 2015, as part of an investigation following the murder of 70-year-old Robert Hénault in his home by the Montreal police. The SPVM was also responsible for the murders of Pierre Coriolan in 2017 and Nicholas Gibbs in 2018, consistently showing an inability to properly address police misconduct. Shortly after the murder of Gibbs, the Bureau des Enquêtes Indépendantes (BEI), an independent body that examines incidents of police violence, launched an investigation. However, the BEI has yet to publish its report detailing the police’s use of violence that led to Gibbs’ murder. Further, the BEI’s investigations have failed to convict a single officer so far.

The BEI has a track record of responding passively to officers who purposefully ignore investigative protocol. In the past, they thought it sufficient to send letters to police forces whose officers had violated protocol and did not even impose any concrete punitive measures. The burden of police accountability should not fall on civilians because of the investigative body’s failure to do its job; more importantly, civilians should not have to live under the threat of being killed by the police.

Police brutality disproportionately affects people of colour, people with disabilities, and queer, trans, and gender nonconforming people because of systemic biases within the police force. The police have, and continue to target LGBTQ people in areas known to be queer cruising spaces. Moreover, police routinely stop people of colour for baseless checks, which often escalate into violence.

The use of racial profiling by police against Black and Indigenous people is glaringly apparent. The numerous cases of police violence provide irrefutable evidence that the police constitute a racist institution. Despite the numerous incidents of police violence, Montreal continues to consolidate and recognize the power of the police as a form of “necessary” control. The municipal government and mayor Valérie Plante must urgently address the SPVM’s violence against people of colour, queer people, and people with disabilities. We must also bear in mind that body cameras are not the ultimate solution for police accountability and that the police must be better trained in nonviolent de-escalation techniques. We further must decentralize the police as universal first responders on a governmental as well as personal level: when calling the police, we must remember the ways in which their presence often puts marginalized people’s safety at risk. Ultimately, we must call for the complete abolition of policing.