Friday, January 18, 2008

Racial Profiling in St-Michel: Cops Get Their Wrists Slapped

From today's Gazette:

‘ We did not profile because of race,’ police say
On a steamy August night in 2003, 13-yearold Jonas Cassey, his brother Henri, 16, and four teenage friends were sitting on a low metal fence and chatting.

The three males and three females, all black, felt at ease, as most were in front of the St. Michel walk-up where they lived.

Suddenly, two Montreal police officers asked them to get off the fence because they were obstructing pedestrian movement and risked falling, the youths said.

When they refused, the boys – but not the girls – were each given $85 tickets for “using municipal property for a purpose other than that for which it is designed.”

This was a case of racial profiling, the Quebec Human Rights Commission said yesterday.

The commission recommended the city of Montreal pay $10,000 each in moral and punitive damages to Jonas Cassey, who at 13 was a year too young to be fined.

It suggested the city pay the same amount to his brother Henri and their friend Fritznol François, who was 16.

In fact, the housing unit in working-class St. Michel, home to many people with roots in Haiti, North Africa or Latin America, is considered private property because it belongs to the para-public Municipal Housing Office, not the city of Montreal itself.

In a second case from 2003, 15-year-old Feten Ounissi, who is of Tunisian descent, was walking with friends and her younger brother behind a St. Michel housing project where she lived when several police officers told her to go home.

She then went to the front of the building and sat on the stoop. Again, police told her to go home. When she refused, she was lifted off the ground by two cops, taken to a cruiser, handcuffed and given a $118 ticket, she testified before the rights panel.

Her mother, Arbia Bouganmi, who said she was prevented from talking to her daughter, also was fined.

The commission said there was no valid motive for these police actions. It ruled that Ounissi, now 20, was a victim of racial profiling and should get $13,000 in damages. Her mother ought to receive $4,000, the panel added.

Fo Niemi, executive director of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, which supported the complaints, said the ticketing indicates Montreal police are targeting teenagers of colour in that area.

This was strenuously denied yesterday by Chief Inspector Paul Chablo, who said the department does not accept the commission’s decision because “we are convinced this was a justified police intervention.”

“We did not profile anybody because of race,” he said, but added the department welcomed the commission’s suggestions to invest more funds to improve training and track incidents with racial overtones.

“We have a zero-tolerance policy on racial profiling,” he said.

There had been “a large amount of citizen complaints” about crimes in St. Michel at the time, Chablo said.

The tickets were “immediately retracted” when it was discovered one had been issued to a 13-year-old and all the supposed violators were on private property, he said.

The commission can refer the case to the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, which has the status of a court.

Niemi congratulated the Montreal force for its recent training policies to prevent racial profiling.

“We do not want this seen as bashing the Montreal police department.We have to congratulate the leadership for their efforts.”

Jonas Cassey said that was not his first run-in with police that summer; he was also fined for “incivility” because an officer did not like the way he was jivewalking when crossing the street. Jonas did not file a complaint in that case.

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