CANADA

Charges of racism

LISA VAN DUSEN November 30 1987
CANADA

Charges of racism

LISA VAN DUSEN November 30 1987

Charges of racism

By most accounts, Anthony Griffin was an unlikely candidate for martyrdom. Until he was killed by a police bullet in Montreal on Nov. 11, the troubled black 19year-old had spent the last year of his life in and out of court on a vari-

ety of minor charges, ranging from breaking and entering to breach of probation.

But the 300 people who crowded into St. Simon’s Church in Laval, Que., for his funeral three days later instead mourned a teenager who had been a private in the Royal Canadian Hussars, was described by friends as “a good kid” and whose killing outraged Montreal’s black community. His death also worsened the deteriorating relations between Montrealers and their police department. Said Rev. Philip Santram, who presided at the funeral: “The whole community is enraged and saddened, irrespective of ethnic background.”

Anger at Griffin’s death spread beyond Montreal’s black community. Said Lea

Cousineau, vice-chairman of the Montreal Urban Community (MUC) Public Security Commission, which oversees the police force: “Racism exists throughout the system. In this case, there was obviously an error made. We need to get to the roots of the problem.” Indeed, the shooting was the lat-

est in a series of incidents in the past five years that have aroused concern about police conduct across Quebec.

In Montreal, the Griffin affair dealt a sharp blow to the MUC police force’s efforts to improve relations with the city’s 120,000 blacks and rekindled accusations of police brutality. So far this year 43 people have sued the force, many for assault and wrongful arrest. The number is more than double the 15 to 20 suits launched

against Toronto police every year.

Of all the incidents, the Griffin killing has created the most outrage. Just before dawn Griffin was arrested by Montreal police on a motel strip in the city’s west end after refusing to pay for a taxi ride. He was then taken to a nearby police station after a routine check revealed that he was wanted for breaking and entering. But in the station parking lot, Griffin, who was not handcuffed at the time, broke away from the officers holding him. According to later

reports—including one filed by a policewoman at the scene—Griffin obeyed an order to stop and turned to face the officers. It was then that Griffin was felled by a single shot. The bullet struck Griffin in the fore-

head, killing him instantly. At week’s end, Const. Allan Gosset, a 16-year veteran of the force, was charged with manslaughter.

Police officials immediately ruled out racism as a factor in the killing. Roland Bourget, chief of the MUC Police, told reporters just hours after the shooting: “A man who shouldn’t have died was killed. But I’ll stake my reputation on the belief that it was not a racially motivated incident.” But doubts

were raised when police officials later disclosed that the Quebec human rights commission had sued Gosset in 1982 over an incident involving a black man who was severely beaten by Gosset and a female officer after they stopped his car. The MUC settled the case out of court for $2,450. But, declared Bourget: “I cannot believe— maybe I’m naïve—that the police will shoot someone because they’re black.” Still, Bourget suspended Gosset without pay, to await the results of an internal police inquiry. And minority community leaders immediately demanded that Herbert Marx, the province’s justice minister and acting solicitor general, launch an indepen-

dent inquiry. Said Gosnell Yorke, a United Church minister and black activist: “We want to see justice done.”

Critics said that stronger measures to control police behavior across the province may be needed. The reputation of Quebec police has been damaged in recent years by a series of blunders and incidents of brutality. In 1983 an innocent carpet-layer was shot to death and his companion wounded while sleeping in a motel room near Sherbrooke during a misdirected raid by detectives looking for robbery suspects. And in 1986 a Ste-Foy police officer pleaded guilty to gunning down two colleagues from the nearby Quebec City force who had discovered him robbing a warehouse.

But it is the MUC force that has come under the greatest scrutiny. The force received an unwelcome dose of attention in 1985, when television stations around the world broadcast a videotape of a Montreal constable scuffling in a convenience store with a man who had complained that the officer was double-parked. Although the officer was later cleared of wrongdoing, the incident encouraged the MUC to take steps to improve the force’s public image. Among them: a hiring program to increase the number of minority officers on the force. So far, however, the program has recruited only three officers for the 4,481-member force, which currently has 18 nonwhite members. In comparison, Toronto’s 5,242-member force has 192 nonwhite officers.

The rash of incidents has brought more attention to police recruitment and training practices. Although police instructors insist that training techniques have become more sophisticated in the past 20 years, some observers maintain that Quebec police recruits are not as well-trained as their counterparts in other provinces. In Ontario, police officers invariably return to the Ontario Police College for refresher courses during their first seven years of duty. But Quebec officers do not return to the Institut de Police du Québec in Nicolet after their four-month training period unless asked to do so by their departments.

Critics of the Quebec system note that graduates from Nicolet become the responsibility of older officers, many of whom were hired before the institute was founded in 1968. In Montreal, 52 per cent of incidents that required some form of sanction are committed by officers with 10 to 20 years of service.

Although the force has held information sessions on Montreal’s ethnic communities, critics say that they do little to alleviate tensions. “It’s a crash course,” said Jean-Paul Brodeur, a professor at the University of Montreal’s School of Criminology. “All they do is replace negative stereotypes with positive ones. I talked to a fairly senior police officer who attended a seminar and came out saying that all East Indians are good mathematicians.” Said Lieut. Normand Langlois, five days after the shooting of Anthony Griffin: “We arrested one black kid, and he said, ‘Are you going to shoot me?’ ”

Station 15, where Gosset worked and Griffin was shot, received up to 20 threatening phone calls a day in the week following the incident. And officers have been spat at repeatedly while on patrol. But while black community organizations have urged their members to refrain from violent reactions, Montreal’s politicians are still trying to find a long-term solution to the problem. Said Irving Adessky, a member of the MUC’s Public Security Commission: “We just haven’t got the message out yet that we won’t tolerate racism and brutality. In the meantime, you have to ask, where will it all end?”

LISA VAN DUSEN

in Montreal