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Historic setback for complainants against police abuse in Québec

Rollback of the ethics regime will undermine collective oversight of police actions

Canadian PoliticsPolicingQuebec

From the series “#ACAB” by Québecois photographer Benoit Paillé.

Remember 2020? That year, the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked a protest movement across North America, and far beyond. Justin Trudeau kneeled as an empty gesture of solidarity at a public demonstration. It felt as if suddenly politicians discovered the existence of racism and police brutality.

Did anything change for the better after this momentum died away? In Québec, the answer is a definite no. In fact, the situation for those who feel targeted by police has only gotten worse since the province’s only police ethics complaint system is now being significantly weakened.

Québec’s police ethics complaint system was established in 1990. The Police Act provides that anyone has the right to file a complaint to the police ethics commissioner even if they are not the direct victim of an alleged abuse. This made eminent sense: if officers are supposed to use their powers for the public good, it follows that any member of the public should be permitted to report inappropriate behaviour by a police officer—these are known as “third-party complainants.”

When a case has a strong evidentiary basis the officer against whom the complaint is lodged must stand trial before the police ethics committee, an administrative tribunal that has the power to impose sanctions ranging from a simple warning to permanent removal from police functions. The latter punishment is rare, so a guilty officer typically ends up with a suspension without pay in the most serious of cases, including police killings.

Previous provincial governments did “reform” the police ethics system. In 1997, conciliation between plaintiffs and the police was made mandatory while the window of time to file a complaint was cut in half to be only one year after the offense took place. At that time, the provincial government said it wanted to save money. But these new rules seriously weakened the police ethics system. Year after year, fewer than 10 percent of complaints are investigated. Meanwhile, the remaining 90 percent of complaints are rejected outright without even being investigated.

The police ethics commissioner has therefore become a machine whose function is primarily to dismiss complaints and effectively minimize the concerns of people who feel they are victims of police abuse or profiling. As a result, only one percent of officers end up being disciplined or charged by the police ethics committee. Often, it takes years before the committee issues a ruling. According to the CBC:

There are also questions about how the complaint system functions in the regions outside Montréal. Despite well-documented tensions between the police and the Black community in Repentigny, for instance, CBC was unable to find a single racial profiling complaint that reached the committee level dating back to 1991.

Despite the weakness of the complaint system, the prevailing attitude among police is that only the direct victims of inappropriate or violent behaviour by officers, not “third-parties,” should have the right to file a complaint.

In the case of Terry Lalo, a 16-year-old Innu man who was fatally struck by a Sûreté du Québec (provincial police) vehicle in 2002 in the city of Sept-Îles in eastern Québec, a coroner’s inquest revealed that two superior officers were recorded making racist jokes as the teenager was taking his last breaths. When a citizen later filed a complaint, the officer’s lawyers tried to have the police ethics committee reject the case by pleading that the complainant wasn’t present when the officers made the comments. The tribunal reminded them that the Police Act allows anyone to file a complaint, whether they are present at the scene or not.

I have lodged dozens of complaints as a third-party over the years. Many of them concerned cases where a citizen died at the hands of police and had nobody to advocate for them. Earlier this year, following a complaint I submitted, two Montréal police officers were found by the ethics committee to have lied and made false statements about the circumstances leading to the 2017 death of 23-year-old David Tshiteya Kalubi. Officers lied to independent investigators when they said they weren’t aware of Kalubi’s medical condition after he died while in custody.

Four other Montréal police officers were also charged after I made a complaint regarding the 2017 killing of Koray Kevin Celik, 28, in front of his parents. They were charged only after I convinced the police ethics committee to review their initial rejection of my complaint.

The Québec police lobby wants to get rid of third-party complainants like me because they are far more likely to lead to sanctions than complaints from direct victims. Mélie Blais-Cyr, who studies policing at the School of Criminology at the University of Montréal, analyzed more than 9,000 police ethics complaints filed between April 1, 2015, and March 31, 2020. She found that while third-party complaints constituted “only 3.2% of the files submitted” to the police ethics system, they represented an outsized “44.4% of the files which led to a sanction.”

No government had dared to attack the universal right to file a complaint until François Legault and the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) came to power. In 2019, Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault announced a public consultation on “police reality.” The consultation committee was formed by two former police officers, a former judge, a former mayor and a former MP. Since the “absent are always in the wrong,” I decided to be present and take an active part in this consultation by writing a brief on the sad reality faced by the victims of police abuse, focusing mostly on the failures of the police ethics system, which I criticized strongly. Ultimately, the consultation committee decided they didn’t need to hear from me.

A handful of police unions and police forces used public consultations to ask the government to shut the door on third-party complainants. On its own, this wasn’t much of a shock. What was rather unexpected, however, was when Police Ethics Commissioner Marc-André Dowd sided with the police unions.

During his hearing with the consultation committee, Dowd justified his position with two arguments.

First, he argued that the commissioner’s office lacks resources. While true, instead of alerting civil society about this real issue, Dowd used the situation to advocate for removing the right to complain from third parties. Dowd also asked for a broader mandate for prevention and outreach. The priority was clearly not to expand powers to punish police abuse.

Second, the commissioner argued that police would be disclosing too much sensitive information when rendering a decision to reject a complaint by third-parties. However, in such decisions, we find that only basic information is made available to the public, including the name and badge number of police officers against whom complaints are made, as well as limited extracts from pertinent police reports and occasional references to witness statements (who remain anonymous). Ironically, while Dowd was siding with measures that would mean less transparency in cases of police abuse in Québec, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP decided to post on its website “depersonalized summaries of RCMP public complaint investigations that it has reviewed.”

Ultimately, the Québec police lobby and the commissioner converged toward the same goal: reducing the number of complaints. The CAQ government took action on this issue by introducing Bill 14, which was passed on October 3, 2023.

The police ethics system is unloved as much by the police as by the victims, so not many people went to the front to defend it when it was let down by its own police ethics commissioner, making the whole sabotage operation even easier. An already broken system will thus become even more hobbled. Police will now be able to express racist views on the air without fearing a citizen will file a complaint against them, as happened in the Lalo case. And when police officers lie, as in the Kalubi case, or use excessive force, as in the Celik case, activists like me will only be able to file a “report” with no guarantee of any follow-up from the commissioner’s office.

This constitutes a major victory for the police lobby. Apologists will surely use the even lower numbers of complaints to argue that law enforcement in Québec has improved. This is yet additional proof that the momentum of the 2020 movement is mostly dead, three years later.

Alexandre Popovic is an independent researcher and the spokesperson for the Coalition Against Police Repression and Police Abuse. He is also the author of Produire la menace, which served as inspiration for the recent documentary Manufacturing the Threat.


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